Marking territory indoors is not the same thing as the well described inappropriate elimination although the end result – urine in the home – is the same. Although there may be an overlap in the motivation for inappropriate elimination and marking. A cat might urinate outside the litter tray because the tray is in the wrong place or the litter is unsuitable. A cat will mark territory that is at the core of his home range because he is insecure. Sometimes urinating outside the litter tray is caused by insecurity. That is an example of an overlap.
Generally, wild cat species mark the edges of their territory along major trails and cross-roads etc. Marking takes the form of urine spraying, squat marking with urine, marking with feces (called ‘middening’ in the scientific community), rubbing rocks along trails etc., and scratching which leaves a visual marker and an olfactory message.
The area inside the home of the cat caretaker could be considered to be at the center of the domestic cat’s territory, not the edges. Accordingly marking by spraying indoors is not for the purpose of leaving a signal for other cats. What is the reason? The belief was that marking within core territory was about a dominant individual asserting control. It is now believed to be more usually the actions of an insecure individual creating a sense of security. The increased sense of security comes about because the cat in smelling his or her own urine feels more at home and settled. Indoor spray marking is for ‘self-reassurance’ it is thought.
This sort of behavior is probably more common in domesticated wild cats such as servals and leopard cats (Asian leopard cat) than the domestic cat. A intermediate form of self-reassurance will be seen when the insecure cat sleeps in her own litter or near her litter tray.
If a domestic cat is marking in this fashion it will be far more frequent than inappropriate elimination. Marking behavior can occur frequently. The particular difficulty with this behavior is that it is highly likely to damage the human-cat relationship; in fact, ruin it. The actions of the human in response may well make the cat even more insecure and exacerbate the problem. The cat caretaker may do the opposite of what is required (e.g. punish the cat) to stop the behavior making the cat even insecure. This is a downward spiral to abandonment.
It is thought that marking indoors is likely to be more severe when there is an single cat in the household. Is this because of the likelihood of separation anxiety being a cause? Multi-cat households can cause stresses amongst the cats but at least they have company.
The underlying cause, therefore, of indoor marking is as a response to stress. It is an emotional reaction and quite natural. It is also natural for the cat to constantly top up the smell by more marking behavior. Removing the urine with appropriate cleaning agents will break the cycle provided the underlying cause is also removed. Apparently cleaning materials that contain ammonia and chlorine can suggest to the cat that another cat is present. The cat will therefore re-mark territory further damaging the human-cat relationship. There are enzyme cleaners that are effective. Removing cat urine is notoriously difficult. Water and detergent does not work.
Research in the US indicates that indoor spraying is likely to occur at places where the outside can be seen – near windows for example. Is this a stress response to being kept indoors? It also occurs on ‘electrical appliances and novel items’.
Possible causes of indoor marking are:
- limited access to the outside (see above)
- unhappy relationships with other cats in the home
- hostile relationships with cats outside the home
- moving home
- interactions with the cat’s human companion that causes insecurity
- changing the appearance of the inside of the home (e.g. introducing new items).
Five of these six are controllable by the cat’s caretaker. Sometimes, reluctantly, it may be better for both parties (cat and human) if they part company and the cat takes up residence in a new home.
Removing the cause will solve the problem. Pheromone therapy is also recommended.
Reference: S.E. Heath – Behavior Problems and Welfare – The Welfare of the Cat, edited by Irene Rochlitz. ISBN 978-1-4020-6143-1