Mind of the Cat: 06/06

Marking Behavior: What To Do?

We humans are often quite offended when our cats mark inside our houses. It is true that some marking behavior can have unpleasant consequences. A mattress is just not the same once it has been doused with urine.

In truth, though, marking is just another normal behavior. Cats that are free to roam may deposit urine on many surfaces per hour of travel. Should we be grateful that, in general, even the most egregious offender rarely marks inside his house more than 10 or 20 times per day?

Marking behavior to a cat is just a means of communication. Messages sent through secretions will be clearly understood by the feline recipient. Cats can manipulate their physical and social environment by appropriately marking surfaces and other cats. The pheromones, or chemical messengers, vary with their source. That is, a cat may choose to deposit urine, stool or glandular secretions depending on the message that needs to be sent.

Many Reasons for Marking
Why do indoor cats mark at all? Many reasons. An insecure cat may mark a surface in order to provide comfort for himself. A very confident cat may mark to announce his presence. Behaviorists try to determine the motivation and triggers for marking. By adjusting motivation and reducing the response to stressors, we can then reduce the frequency and intensity of indoor marking. Every family has its threshold for tolerance and there is always the fear that the next item that is marked will be considered irreplaceable and in some cases the poor culprit will face eviction.

Some manners of marking may be better tolerated than others. Most people do not object to facial marking. Granted, certain surfaces may be blackened by the oily secretions. But being rubbed or bunted by a cat is often considered an honor, as the behavior has been thought of as a sign of affection. Perhaps that is not the entire story, but it is not a bad way of looking at the situation.

Cats may also send messages by depositing stool in socially significant areas. This behavior, known as middening, can be very frustrating. Tolerance may depend upon whose side of the bed is soiled!

The most disturbing method of marking in housecats seems to be urine marking. Most of the time, urine is deposited in small quantities on vertical surfaces. Cats may also urine mark in a squatting position. This can create some confusion when attempting to diagnose a soiling problem.

Once the diagnosis of marking has been established, a treatment plan can be designed. For instance, we may determine that marking is an expression of aggression between household cats. A timid victim cat may mark socially significant items as a means of fighting without direct confrontation.

Contrarily, an assertive cat may mark to emphasize that the house belongs to him. He may mark central areas and pathways.

When aggression between cats is diagnosed, the treatment plan will focus on improving the relationship between the cats. Through behavior modification, such as desensitization and counterconditioning, timid cats may be encouraged to move about in a relaxed manner. Similarly, aggressive cats may be taught to tolerate the proximity of other cats without aggressive posturing. Subtle postural threats that may precede marking must also be identified.

Sometimes, cats mark in response to a challenging relationship with a person in the home. Fortunately, it is a bit easier to treat a response to a particular person than a response to an individual cat. In general, people are more inclined to follow a prescribed protocol. Of course, when young children are the source of discomfort to a cat, the situation can be more challenging.

Another reason for marking behavior is separation-related anxiety. Some cats are comforted by the scent and activity of their people. So, when their person is not available, they leave their own comforting scents. Very often, cats target the areas that their owners frequent. Or they may target valuable personal belongings.

On that note, some cats mark as if to mask unpleasant or unfamiliar scents. New furniture, new belongings and even bags may be marked. Cats have been known to mark in an apparent attempt to mask the scent of air fresheners, colognes or candles.

What to do? Step back, do the detective work and get to the source of the behavior. Behavior modification and environmental modification can both be very effective tools to reduce or eliminate marking. For some cats, medication may be added to the treatment regimen. It is very likely that your cat can be convinced to abandon his marking routine.