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It's All Mine! Cat Marking Explained

By Elizabeth Wasserman

It\'s All Mine! Cat Marking Explained

Certified cat behavioral consultant Marilyn Krieger recently received a flustered phone call from a couple in Redwood City, Calif: One of the couple’s two cats had started spraying urine around the perimeter doors and windows of their home. The two cats had always lived together peacefully. The owners were wondering what was provoking the male to mark its territory in such a smelly manner.

After visiting the family, Krieger learned that the couple had recently started feeding stray feral cats right outside their home. They said the male cat would get very upset when the feral cats arrived. He could see them out the window. “Cats spray for a variety of reasons,” Krieger says. “In this case, it could be a way of telling the world and the other outside cats, ‘Hey, I’m here. Stay out. This is where I live. You don’t belong here.’”

Cats use a variety of methods to mark people, things and territory with their scent. Spraying and scratching are two such scent-marking ways that are the most difficult for pet owners to tolerate. In contrast, other feline marking behaviors are endearing. For example, cats engage in head-“bunting” -- butting a person with the head -- or rubbing up against someone’s hand with their cheeks to release scents that mark you as their loved ones. 

Glands and Plans
Cats have glands on certain parts of the body that explain many of these marking behaviors. These glands can secrete a subtle scent emanating from chemicals that scientists call pheromones. Pheromones are essential to cat communication. They allow felines to attract mates, define territories, promote a sense of comfort and let other cats know who and where they are. “It’s like leaving a calling card,” says Pamela Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant (CABC).

Cats secrete the pheromones from glands located in a variety of locations on their bodies. Here’s a guide to the locations and how those explain certain cat behaviors:

  • Forehead and cheeks The scent glands located on the forehead and cheeks are often used to promote calming behaviors that we see as very loving and friendly. Such behaviors may include head-bunting and cheek-rubbing.
  • Paw bottoms When your cat scratches, be it on the arm of a sofa or on a scratching post, it is not only leaving a physical mark, but also an olfactory one. “They’re not scratching only to give themselves a manicure,” says Krieger. “They are marking as well.”
  • In the urine stream Cat urine contains pheromones too. Urine spraying by cats should not be confused with urination. Spraying is done on walls, windows, furniture and other objects. After a cat sniffs the target, it turns around, lifts its tail, and sprays urine at the target.

Why They Do It
Different types of marking behaviors are often prompted by very different motivations on the part of our furry friends. Johnson-Bennett, also author of the book Starting from Scratch (Penguin 2007), has a general rule of thumb: the markings from the front of the cat are most often “friendly” behaviors, while the scent markings coming from the rear are often “unfriendly.” Here is what your cat may be trying to communicate:

  • Marking you -- or another pet -- as “Mine!” When cats head-bunt or rub cheeks on humans, it is often to mark you as their own. They will also mark a fellow feline this way. “Pheromone is a scent chemical, but it also helps cats with bonding behavior,” Johnson-Bennett says. “If two cats know each other and are friendly, they will engage in scent exchange. It helps the colony to have one familiar scent.”
  • Communicate that they live there Scratching is a natural feline impulse and activity. Cats do this whether they are indoors or outdoors. They pick a few different objects to scratch -- trees, chair legs, scratching posts -- and return often. It is one method of communicating that they live there. Scratching in a new location may be prompted by change, including a move or the purchase of new furniture. Cats are comforted when surrounded by their own scent in a room, such as on a couch or on the carpet.
  • Telling others to “Keep out!” Spraying is often used to mark territory or to communicate boundaries. It may often be prompted indoors by a change in environment, such as moving to a new home, buying new furnishings and remodeling. Or it may be a reaction to a new member of the household, be it a baby, a new husband or a new pet. Cat urine, which can be quite pungent, may be directed at draperies, walls, furnishings and more.

Keep a Positive Spin on Marking
Since marking is a natural feline behavior, remember that you can take steps to keep your pet’s instincts positive. Here are five tips from cat behaviorists on how to channel your cat’s marking:

  • Rub your cat’s cheeks and head. This has a very calming and reassuring effect on your cat, Johnson-Bennett says
  • Rub those “friendly” glands on the head and cheeks with a dry wash cloth and spread the scent on new furnishings. This could help to deter scratching behavior, according to Johnson-Bennett
  • Offer your pet places to scratch, such as stable vertical scratching posts and horizontal posts as well. Never buy these used because they may carry the markings of another cat and prompt your pet to spray, Krieger says
  • Prepare your pet for change. If a new baby is expected, invite someone over with an infant to accustom your cat to the noise, scent and presence of a baby
  • If your cat has sprayed in certain areas, wash those with an enzyme-based cleaner that removes the odor, Krieger suggests. Even if you address the underlying cause that prompted the spraying, your cat may return to spray in an area if it still detects its own scent

Krieger, whose business is called The Cat Coach, recommended to her clients that they not only clean, but that they also address the root cause of their male cat’s spraying. She advised them to block the windows and feed the feral cats away from their home. She advises, “You have to make sure you remove the trigger.”

Elizabeth Wassermana Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about pets, among other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed down through the generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book Lassie Come Home in the 1930s.

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Posted on October 3, 2009

myranissen says: My cat uses his paws around his food dish the same way he buries his feces. Why?

Posted on November 9, 2009

Dara says: For the friend who's husband threw cat out for "trying to smother the baby"- This is an old wives tale. Cats do NOT try to smother babies or steal their breath. They like to sleep near warm bodies. They don't like the scent of human breath. They don't attack babies. Like it said in the other post, your friend can get a mesh cover for the crib and close the door so the cat won't get in. You don't want any fur (or any other part of the cat) to accidentally block the infant's air passage. Soon enough the child will be old enough to nap with kitty. Too many people get rid of cats when they have kids, and it is usually a result of misinformation. Cats and babies can and do co-exist. There are informative websites on this subject. I hope your friend's husband does not intend to let that cat die out of ignorance and hysteria. If so, someone needs to step in and save the cat.

Posted on February 26, 2009

miranda reed says: i have a male cat, 3 years old. he has been spraying for about 2 years. he will spray anything. my kids' toys, clothes, stuffed animals, bookbags, purses, coats and even countertops. i have tried different enzyeme sprays, but nothing has worked. any suggestions?

Posted on October 6, 2008

Miriam Ritmeyer says: I had a cat that will head bunted me so franctic. He will go behind head and play with my heard and lay on his side behind me and start rubbing his head, and grabbing my head with both paws. It will be incredible, he will inmerse his head in my hair. He would do it as I would do to him, when I grab his head with both hands and rub my face against his.

Posted on September 15, 2008

nicole says: I have a pregnant cat and two male neuterded cats. The older male cat keeps attacking the the younger cat , could this be because he is protecting the pregnant cat.

Posted on September 4, 2008

Erica says: I have a persian cat who is a year old. Last night I caught her peeing in the corner. She did this a few weeks ago too. I clean her potty box everyday and she knows where it is at. I just can't understand why she is doing this. She a has a vet appt in a few weeks. I would really love to get to the bottom of this. I'll take any suggestions at this point. Thanks!

Posted on August 13, 2008

Nikki Timberlake says: I have a 4 yr old spayed female named Chubby who has started urinating and defacating on the carpet. I have 3 other cats who use the litter box without any problems. I have cleaned the carpet and sprayed it with Natures Miracle repeatedly and she still continues to do this. She doesn't do it every day but she will do it with me in the room sometimes and other times when I am not here. I am desperate as I am living with friends and they are getting upset about it and it is going to come down to me having to move or get rid of the cat. Please help! Thanks.

Posted on August 1, 2008

Al says: We have 2 Female cats, age 7 and 8 that get along great, they play togeather all the time. Our 7 year old had an operation and had to stay overnight in the hospital. Sense coming home our 8 year old wants nothing to do her. She hisses and growls whenever they come close to one another.It's been 4 days now and still happens. Could this be the hospital scent that is given off.

Posted on July 26, 2008

Dee Ann & Mackenzie says: Not being very familiar with cats. We got our first cat 3 years ago, she is a female. We bought a new kitten last week (a male) to keep her company...lol! The older cat hates him...hisses, growls and stays under one of our beds most of the time, is there a chance of the older cat accepting the kitten or should we start looking for a new home for the kitten, now?

Posted on July 23, 2008

kara says: I have 4 cats and a dog,all are insiders.One female cat and the rest are males including the dog.The female cat likes to back up and spray the walls as if she were a male.Is it because she is the only female in the house or because she wants more attention from me.She also sleeps near my head when I go to bed,but she doesn't stay there thru the night.What can I do to make her stop.Cats:oldest male 15,male and female cats:13 and the youngest male cat is 5,dog is 10yrs.old.Any advice!!

Posted on July 23, 2008

kara says: I have 4 cats and a dog,all are insiders.One female cat and the rest are males including the dog.The female cat likes to back up and spray the walls as if she were a male.Is it because she is the only female in the house or because she wants more attention from me.She also sleeps near my head when I go to bed,but she doesn't stay there thru the night.What can I do to make her stop.Cats:oldest male 15,male and female cats:13 and the youngest male cat is 5,dog is 10yrs.old.Any advice!!

Posted on July 18, 2008

Leslie Babbel says: My male cat is spraying the neighbors truck wheel and window, door, and deck. My neighbor really likes our cat and the cat likes him back. Why is this happening and what can I do?

Posted on July 11, 2008

clarice feldman says: I couldn't figure out why my otherwise sweet and well-mannered bengal was urinating outside the litter box--on down comforters, Using doodoo voodoo helped clean it up though it took the better part of a day to clean up the mess each time. Her breeder now reports that others are having this problem with their bengals--it's the scent of the feathers apparently and it's worse after the down is dry cleaned. It's controlled by keeping the cat out of the bedroomw which all have down comforters and by putting the one in the master bedroom inside a waterproof membrane cover.

Posted on July 9, 2008

Julia says: This website, celiahaddon dot co dot uk, has so many answers! Celia Haddon tells us why our kitties eat weird things (mine eats wrappers and plastic), pee on anything and everything (dealt with this for YEARS), pooping outside the litterbox (a form of marking; mine actually did this because we weren't feeding her enough soft food so the poop hurt her... so she bombed the house), and why cats fight (mine are going ca-rayzee because the new one is terrorizing the old ones, so there's the marking going on, and they fight a lot. We are going to start trying to giving them treats when they are together, to associate yummies with the other cat. Good luck to us). One other thing that is mentioned on this site is the fact that cats occasionally spray when other cats or humans in the house become ill; they smell the difference in the others... it seems that kitty olfactory senses are a gajillion times stronger than ours, so a speck of dust throws them off their game (kidding). I love my three cats, and rehoming is not an option, so we'll work through it. Last thought: we were trying to get our cats to stop fighting by squirting them when they did it, but somewhere on that site it says that this is bad because they'll just associate the squirting with the other cat, not with the behavior. Well sunnuva. So we'll move on to treats. :) Love and luck, from Julia, Julie, Bitsy (bi-polar), Ember (asthmatic & bulimic dog-cat (part manx who wags, barks, and plays fetch)), and Elphaba (psycho smartypants)

Posted on July 8, 2008

Jen Selim says: I love my cat Jeana who will be 6 yrs. old Nov, 9 08. My husband & I got her when she was only 3 weeks old. My husband passed away soon to be 3 yrs ago & my baby still hasn't forgotten him they would have breakfast together every morning after his 1st. cup of coffee she runs to the top of the basement stairs to let him know its time to change her litter. She has traveled all over the US & the Bahamas with us and now she travels with me by car. Last Thanksgiving eve she was in the window laate at night & someone fired a gunshot which spooked her & scared her iut of her wits she ran from the window towards the back door that we aalways use I was standing between the LR & DR door she was so riled up unilt it was like she didn't even know who I was she lunged at my right leg and put an inch or more gash in then ran away while I tried to stop the bleeding & take care of. I then went to the LR window where she hads been when the gun was fired to put the curtains back up as I was taking my left shoe off she came out of no where & grabbed the back of my leg biting & scratching it to the point of both legs getting infected swelling to over twice the normal size. I was hospitalized for 5 days & 4 nights due to theese bites. She has tried to bite me twice since that incidence so the Vet put on on a sedative (BUSPIRONE 5 MG)and now she doesn't get so hyper. I try to keep her out of the window but when I am sleep she does as she please. She is s beautiful child-like cat very protective & follows me around most of the time. She leeps in bed with me every night unless the fan gets too chilly on her bones. Are there any more suggestions becaasue I really don't want ot have to keep her medicated, she lays around and eats too much more like depression that being relaxed. Otherwise she is higly energetice jump in & out of the bed that is quite high with 2 box springs & 2 mattresses so far no problem. Could it also stress er out becasuse th ehouse is so cluttered with paper all over the floor no real room for her to run through the house. She does goe upstairs sometimes and spend hours alone. While on vacation in April she enjoyed all the room she had to run jump, and act silly. She truly enjoyed the vacation but not the ride. She laid her fat head o my lasp for entire 13 hours each way. I love her with all my heart & don't want to have to get rid of her yet I can't let her bite me anymore if I can prevent it. Wish you haad a place where I could send you her photo. She is a beautiful human-like cat, spoiled rotten. Thanks for any help & advice. Jen & Jeana

Posted on July 6, 2008

Diane Saint says: We have finally found something to curb our male cats from urinating on almost everything. It is coffee grounds. I bought the coffee that comes in make one cup "tea bag" form. I dry the bag out and then put it where ever there is a problem. It has worked pretty well. I told a friend about it, she tried it and said, it works.

Posted on July 5, 2008

Estela Lipschultz says: I have a Calico female cat for 10 years. She isn't affectionate, and doesn't like to be touched or held. If I pet her more than 3 times I get scratched. But I love her anyhow. Then I rescued another female cat and they do not get a long. I've had the new cat for 3 years now, and they still do not get a long. They just go their own seperate ways except the newer cat intimidates the older cat. How can I teach them to get along and maybe even like each other. I know I am asking for a lot. But, I will try anything. I love them both

Posted on July 1, 2008

Tami Daley says: My cat is 2 years old and I just got her about 4 months ago and just recently she has started urinating on certain rugs just in the kitchen! Never any where else just there.I had a cat for 18 years and she passed away and I think I had got these new rugs just before she passed away! Is that the problem..should I buy need rugs? The ones I have are kinda expensive I dont want to buy some new ones and she do the same thing! What should I do and why is she doing this? Help!!

Posted on July 1, 2008

jeneen alix says: I have never had a cat before. my daughter bought me one for motherdays i love him so much he is the best cat and so funny. one thing he does he will go eat a cardboard box I have by a door. he will leave my lap and just jump down and go bite on the box it is so funny but why? does he do this he does not need to eat. that is why i call him tank he is 20lb. do you know why they do these things. thank you. jeneen

Posted on June 30, 2008

Judy says: We have a female tabby and male tabby. They are indoor cats mostly due to our neighbors threats. I have noticed my male tabby follows me throughout the house. Both cats have been fixed. They are about 3 yrs. old. It is quite irritating. I find myself racing to a bedroom to hurry and close the door before our male cat enters. I figure he must be stressed being indoors all the time. Does he need catnip or something stronger to help him calm down? Our female cat is happy to do her own thing. I must say I am complimented but I also feel harrassed, chuckle. Help?

Posted on June 29, 2008

Sharon Rybak says: As soon as my daughter-in-law became pregnant, her 5 yr. old female cat began to urinate outside of her litterbox! Her veteranarian told her that sometimes cats "smell" the odor of the woman's pregnancy and can't put a face to the smell. She is ready to give her away, and although she already has a 4 yr. old boy, I hate to think of his pet going away. Can anyone help thwe grandmother protect this pet? Is their anything more they can do. They have used the"feremone" treatment from the Dr....to no avail! I would like to take her, but, I am afraid she would do the same at my home, as I have 3 cats myself! HELP PLEASE!

Posted on June 28, 2008

Judy Rathke says: Please tell your friend that the cat was NOT trying to smother his child! Cats like to sleep with someone who is warm, and will cuddle up to a baby or small child in this fashion, When the baby is small, it's wise to put a mesh cover over the crib to keep the cat out until the child is big enough to safely sleep with the cat. It was very cruel to throw the cat out of the house! The cat will most certainly die!

Posted on June 29, 2008

debbie says: my cat has begun to knead his paws on our legs and feet at night. he is 5 years old and has never done this. he has been doing it only for 2 weeks need advice.

Posted on June 26, 2008

Anne Wells says: My cat Addy, has started pooping outside her litter box. She pees in the litter box, but will poop outside it. I have had her checked out by the vet, and nothing is wrong health wise. Sometimes she will go four days without pooping outside the litter box, and then she will start up again. Is she stressed? Does she has litter box issues? I simply do not understand, and I have done everything my vet told me to do, but it has not worked. HELP WANTED. Addy is very, very, very loved and paid attention to. Her sister, Princess, has no litter box issues whatsoever.

Posted on June 14, 2008

Rene Turner says: Jack was a tiny rescued kitten when I adopted him. I adopted a calico 4 months later. Never a problem with them.Jack immediately knew how to use the litter box.My daughter helped raise him and when she passed away Nov,2007 Jack started marking.There was a lot of in & out of the house, furniture being moved, litter boxes moving around. I was bringing things from my daughters house that smelled like her and her cat Sophie. After 2 months I called the vet and at 4 months I took him in. He had a litle blood in the urine & had an antibiotic shot.I was told the once a cat starts to mark (urine)They don't stop. Last week Jack had one day that he didn't mark and 2 days this week so I'm hopeful. He is very affectionate to me, I belong to him, not he belongs to me. I have been spraying "Urine Off" and something from the Vet, But I really believe he will stop in time.

Posted on June 5, 2008

betty says: I have one year old kitten- tabby- who is biting the leather sofa and edge of wood doors and rips up newspaper. she has plenty of toys and things to chew on. I have covered the edge of sofa with foil for now.

Posted on June 4, 2008

Joanne Taylor says: We have two indoor male cats (brothers). They have always gotten along, but the other day one of them got outside. It was a struggle to capture him and get him back inside. He is fine, but the other one seems afraid of him and spends most of his time hiding under the sofa. What could cause this new behavior?

Posted on June 4, 2008

chameleon says: One of my cats recently starting urinating on my partner during sleep. It is a multi-cat household, but this is new behavior. I am never peed on, but she is. Recently, she has had health issues like seizures and blackouts. I'm wondering if the cat is picking up on this and that is why she is being urinated on. Any help would be appreciated.

Posted on May 30, 2008

Armand Lambert says: A friend from work has a cat was caught by the husban inside the babys crib and was laying on the child. He threw the cat out of the house and his wife is fighting to get the cat back in the house. He told his wife that the cat was trying to smother there child. Was he right to do so?

Posted on May 30, 2008

Jackie says: My Simba started marking my clothing when he was about 4 or 5 what should I do? Its terrible. He was nutered. Why does he do this?

Posted on May 26, 2008

bb503121 says: is there a natural method of keeping a male cat from spraying on my patio? he also tries to attack my spayed female thru the WINDOW!

Posted on May 23, 2008

Cid says: The article is great. I have a male cat who was 7 yrs. old and indoors that started spraying everything. The cause I believe was that he would get very aggitated when another male cat would spray outside the building which he would see from the window. I cleaned everything with an enzyme cleaner, placed pheromone difussers in the house and eventually my vet decided we could try prozac. This has calmed his behaviors down and back to normal. When the spraying began he would pace and cry all day. Now he sleeps and plays like a normal cat and the spraying has ceased.

Posted on May 20, 2008

Karen says: Cat kneading is an expression of extreme feelings of well-being. Kittens knead around their mother's nipple to stimulate the flow of milk, and for the rest of their lives that kneading behavior is linked to profound feelings of pleasure.

Posted on May 15, 2008


Posted on May 9, 2008

Barbara says: Your article has great information. We were wondering why our male cat continued to headbutt and/or force your attention to him, and now we know. Could you explain why maybe he will come up and paw at you. (My mom calls it making muffins.) He will literally lay on you and knead his paws into you repeatively. Any suggestions?

Posted on April 30, 2008

Stephanie says: That's great to know about the scratching. I have also noticed that they have almost stopped scratching the furniture since we moved into our house. They are much happier with more space to run!!

Posted on December 23, 2010

bakerynana says: tommie scratching walls,tries to burry food,likes to sleep under covers with me

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