The Mind of Your Cat: 11/03

Question: Two years ago, I adopted a two-year-old neutered male cat. He gets along with my three female cats. He and my other neutered male cat have come to an understanding. The problem: spraying that is turning my home into a toxic waste area. Targets include the other male cats litter box and favorite resting spot (the counter), as well as drapes and certain items of furniture. (The litter boxes that the females use are not targeted.) Im at my wits end. In a previous column, you indicated that spanking him is not a good idea. Can you give me some insight on what to do about this problem?

Answer:  I hope that I can indeed give you some insight. Every cat is unique, and as such, each situation is also somewhat unique (hence the value of a one-on-one consultation, which you should arrange before you really reach your wits end).

Although the diagnosis for the behavior you describe is almost certainly urine marking, there are various factors that can drive this behavior. Generally, complete personality profiles of all household felines are needed to achieve a comfortable understanding of the dynamics involved, and to prescribe a very specific treatment regimen.

Still, there are some basic principles to follow. First, it is essential to be certain that only one cat is responsible for the urine spraying. Often, we are able to catch a particular cat spraying a particular target – yet other household cats may be spraying other locations at other times. Placing a monitor or camera near some of the strategic locations would be invaluable. Surprises are not uncommon. Certainly, you would not wish to condemn the one cat that managed to be consistently caught. And of course, it is essential to treat all of the cats that are motivated to mark to assure a successful outcome to the problem at hand.

Next, the interaction between the cats needs to be examined. If friction exists between two of the cats, it would be helpful to learn the most common triggers for aggressive encounters. Behavior modification such as desensitization and counter-conditioning may reduce reactivity in these situations.

Adjuncts to behavior modification are available as well. Many safe psychotropic medications are available to reduce a cats motivation to mark. Your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can determine the most appropriate medication for your cat or cats, as well as whether or not medication is advisable. Commercially available pheromone products have also been designed to reduce urine marking.

The role of environmental modification should not be underestimated. Management tools can reduce aggression and improve tolerance among cats. For instance, if one cat is often pursued aggressively by a second cat, the more aggressive of the pair could wear a breakaway collar to which a bell has been fastened. This will warn the victim that the aggressor is on the move, and will allow him to move to a secure location thus avoiding an unwanted, unexpected encounter.

Be sure to provide feeding, resting and elimination areas in many locations. There should be safe access routes to and from these areas. Watch for blind spots and potential traps. You indicated that your first male cat likes to spend time on the counter. Is this is a particularly desirable location for him, or the only safe haven he could find? If the latter is more likely, then try increasing his access to more comfortable areas by increasing available vertical spaces. This can be accomplished through the addition of shelves or condos.

Do try to learn the timing of the behavior. Access to the favorite marking areas may be deliberately restricted during the high-risk times of day. You may also be able to increase your supervision of the cats during that time period. Although a spanking is always contraindicated, it can be appropriate to startle a cat that is actually caught posturing to spray or is actively engaged in spraying. As punishment is not without risk, no punishment technique should ever be used on an anxious or aggressive cat without specific guidance from a behaviorist.

Never chase or strike any cat. Cats that become frightened of household people may not recover, as their trust can be traumatically shattered. These frightened cats may then engage in increased urine marking, or may develop aggressive behavior toward people.

What can be done? A noise created from a distance will generally serve to startle a cat. A blast from a water bottle may be used if it is abrupt and not accompanied by shouting or chasing. And remotely activated devices can be placed in anticipation of a spraying event. The purpose of these interventions is to interrupt the behavior, not to frighten the cat so much that he runs away terrified or goes into seclusion.

One more note on the timing of the behavior: Since you mentioned that you do need to check for urine upon returning home from work, then at least some of the marking must occur in your absence. Remember that cats suffering from separation-related anxiety are likely to mark almost exclusively when left alone.

Finally, be sure to check urine samples on any culprits. If one cat is frequently victimized, that cat should have a thorough health screening as well.