Urine Marking in Cats
The most common behavior problem reported by pet parents of
cats is inappropriate elimination. It’s estimated that 10% of all cats will
eliminate outside their litter box at some point in their lives. Quite a few of
these cats have issues with some characteristic of their litter box (please see
our article on Litter Box
Problems for more information on litter box problems), but approximately
30% don’t have litter box problems at all. These cats are urine marking, and
urine marking isn’t a litter box problem-it’s a communication problem. Urine
marking is a form of indirect communication used by cats.
Why Do Cats Urine Mark?
Animal species who live in social groups in which the members depend on each
other for survival have sophisticated interpersonal communication. Particularly
animals who can cause significant harm to each other-like dogs-have developed a
social mechanism for preventing conflict through interpersonal ranking. They
are prepared to assume either a leadership or deference position, and they can
read another animal’s body language to interpret his intentions and react
accordingly. But cats have a somewhat unique social structure in that they do
not hunt, eat or sleep in groups like dogs.
Given the opportunity, cats go off on their own when they mature and claim
certain areas or territories for themselves. They might share a territory with
other cats, but it’s a time-share approach-they avoid each other whenever
possible. They haven’t developed a social system or a communication system like
dogs. Socially, cats who greet often handle things like two neighbors in an
argument-although one might back down if he thinks he might get injured-neither
individual will ever perceive himself as having lower status than the other.
Cats have no system for working out face-to-face disputes, so face-to-face
disputes can be dangerous for them. To avoid disputes, cats communicate
indirectly-they leave messages.
Cats have numerous ways to leave messages for each other, and one way is
through urine marking. By urine marking, a cat tells other cats of his presence
and makes a statement about such things as what piece of property is his, how
long ago he was in the area and, over time, when other cats can expect him to
return. Cats can even advertise when they are looking for a mate. All this
information is available to other cats in the urine. This way, cats rarely have
to meet up with each other.
Cats who live in houses might not have to hunt for their food or find a
mate, but they still look at their world in the same way as cats who must
survive on their own. They can only use the social and communication skills
that nature gave them. If their world is predictable, there are no conflicts,
they are spayed or neutered and they don’t need a mate, cats have little reason
to mark and probably will not. But, if they want a mate or they are distressed
about something, they’ll deal with their distress like any cat: they’ll mark
their territory. To a cat, marking helps keep unwanted individuals away-whoever
and whatever those individuals may be-and it creates an atmosphere of
familiarity that makes them feel more secure.