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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:
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:
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:
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 Wasserman, a 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.