Do you see your cat scent marking his territory?

Do you see your cat scent marking his territory, particularly rubbing cheeks against objects? Wild cats are fastidious about it and, as Dr. Morris says, they will renew their scent markings as the scent fades. It is interesting that cats can detect when another cat has been in an area by the degree of degradation of the scent deposited on surfaces. The strength of the scent creates a time reference like a clock. This helps cats avoid each other but it also means that a cat marking his territory has to continually top it up.

Cat Scent Marking

Cat Scent Marking. Photo of snow leopard by somedirection (creative commons). Tiger is from iStockphoto (bought).

We should therefore see routine scent markings going on. In the wild this includes spraying with urine but the domestic cat nearly always scent marks by rubbing his cheek against an object. If allowed outside cats will also scratch trees to scent mark.

In my experience, the favorite objects to mark are at central points or important junctions, which means doors and doorways. Of course, we know that cats hate doors. They get in the way from a cat’s perspective. They are unnatural barriers within his territory.

Although I don’t see my cat, Charlie, scent mark very often, I have noticed a black stain near a door at cat height. The place is a part of my home which is like a junction, a crossroads. After hundreds of scent marking top-ups a cat can leave a visual mark that is particularly noticeable if the wall is white. It is a build up of the oils on his fur.

The one major place where I see my cat scent marking with his cheek is the patio door. This leads to the garden and it is where stray cats turn up for their drugs (catnip) and food. And foxes too. It’s a zoo chez moi.

Because of all the activity by other animals including cats, my cat is compelled to reassert his control over this area of his territory by rubbing his cheek against the door when I open it to let him in. I have blocked off the cat flap to stop strays coming in.

Charlie also scratches furniture which is a form of scent marking as there are glands within the toes. A favorite place is near the patio door, which reinforces the belief that the area is a key one for him, from a territorial standpoint.

I have never had a full-time indoor cat. I wonder if full-time indoor cats scent mark their home? If there is a single cat, or siblings, who lives entirely inside it would seem unnecessary to scent mark because there is no need to claim and protect territory from outsiders.

This begs the question as to whether the ancient behavior that is scent marking is fading away with the domestic cat. They have the protection of a human home. Where is the need to do these wild cat things?

Rubbing a cheek against your leg when you are about to feed him is not scent marking for territorial reasons, obviously. It is affectionate behavior – scent exchange.

Note: if anyone has a photo of their cat scent marking please email me with it attached and I’ll publish it here. mjbmeister[at] (change [at] for @ before using it)

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Do you see your cat scent marking his territory? — 15 Comments

  1. Both our boyz mark their territory inside the house and outside too.
    They rub their cheeks on the furniture near the doors to outside and they spray in the garden. Walter being an anxious nature does it a lot and in various places in the back and the front gardens but Jozef maybe only once or twice, he has a small shrub in the back garden by their tunnel to freedom, he always marks.
    Yes I’m sure rubbing their cheeks against our leg or hand is a sign of affection as well as scenting us because we belong to them.
    Not sure if we have any pics for this but I’ll have a look.

    • Looks like the places near the exit from the home to the outside are key areas to mark. These are probably vulnerable spots in the territory and spaying outside is unusual. Well, I think it is but I could be wrong. Cats normally mark the boundaries and along tracks that they routinely use.

  2. We have neighbourhood cats often passing through, mostly peacefully unless a strange un-neutered tom comes along. I think this is why our boyz spray outside, they tell those others this is OUR property, OK you regulars can pass through, but quickly and strangers, you stay out or else!

  3. I have been thinking about this subject for a while. Now, with four cats around I see the marking behavior more often. The most over abused marking spot is a red rose bush. I am amazed no one has sliced their little furry faces on it, but I think they have dulled the branch with their cheeks so often, there are no more thorns. All three outdoor cats rub on that rose bush. It is almost like a competition. When I saw indoor cat Bigfoot rubbing on the same bush on one of his rare sojourns outdoors, it peaked my interest.

    Marvin sprays his territory and the other cats territory. What I wonder about most is, with a mini-colony of cats like I have (and I do mean mini!) what can I expect from these cats? Marvin torments Shadow, and Yellow follows Shadow no matter what. I see Marvin hassling Yellow if she is alone, but he leaves her alone after she hisses at him. I know Shadow and Marvin have fought, and Marvin is usually the winner.

    Will there ever be peace on the property? Will these guys finally just give it up and stop the madness? Marvin stayed to the front of the property at first, but he is encroaching on the back garden. It has more shade for the warm summer months so I would like him to have access without me worrying about the others. If I see him back there, I invite him in the house so the others can come out of hiding.

    How does it work with a large group of cats? If anyone can tell me it would be the readers and writers here at POC.

    The other interesting thing about marking – or at least interesting to me- now that Marvin spends more time lingering around inside the house, Bigfoot spends way more time marking ME than he ever has. Rubbing, making sure his scent is all over me. Marvin treats him with respect, though he does always stand in front of me if Bigfoot is around and maneuvers in such a way letting Bigfoot know “She is mine!” They both scent mark one leg of the dining room table with their faces. I think I can snap a picture of that.

    Marvin has never sprayed in the house. I do see his mark on the walls of the house outside.

    • You are living in a little cosmos of classic cat behavior activity. I sense that because the cats have come to you because you give them what they need – food and protection etc. – they will try and find a way to live reasonably harmoniously.

      You do seem to have a hierarchy forming: Marvin seems to be top cat and Bigfoot to has accepted it as have Yellow and Shadow (perhaps reluctantly). They are marking the same bush, which is perhaps on the perimeter of your property or at least is a natural place to mark. They seem to be trying to assert their authority.

      I think it is like a competition. A competition for the territory and to be dominant.

      I don’t think you can do much about it but I would expect a system to fall into place whereby the cats get along to a tolerable degree.

      I wonder if Bigfoot is scent exchanging with you because he is a little bit stressed. He may be looking for comfort as Marvin may have upset the hierarchy. Perhaps Bigfoot was top cat before Marvin arrived.

      It is a very interesting situation. It’s a small cat colony. The members have to find a way to get along as they have place that is very useful for them in respect of survival.

      • Thanks for your response Michael. It is helpful. I will enjoy watching it settle in.

        Bigfoot will always be my personal bedroom cat. I cannot imagine Marvin ever wanting to be inside over night. But yes, I think it is stressful for Bigfoot, but he does come and check it out when Marvin is in the house. They give each other a good sniff. Marv tries to head-butt Big, but Bigfoot isn’t sure about that yet.

        It is all very interesting. I adore them all.

        • Perhaps an important point is that all your cats have come to you except Bigfoot. Is that correct? In other words they have entered this world willingly. You have not brought a cat back from a shelter or some similar place and thrust him/her into an existing group of cats.

          They will find a method to get along.

          • Well, Bigfoot came the same way as the others. The difference is, he was first. I think you are right. Time will fix it all. I remember when all I wanted was for yellow cat to eat close by. Now she eats, sleeps and drinks right here. I remember when all I ever wanted was for Bigfoot and Daisy to get along. That happened too! I trust it will work itself out, and I will learn more and more about these wonderful creatures, cats.

            • Your colony evolved slowly and naturally so although you’ll get the odd argument there will be a natural balance to the relationships. The marking is just part of that relationship and there is a bit of competition as in all relationships I guess.

              I think intractable problems can arise when five cats who are strangers to each other are placed together in a unsuitable environment without concern for their preferences. That isn’t the case with your bunch of beauties.

  4. We call it ‘cats politics’ and it fascinates me because behaviour by a person that would upset another person doesn’t seem to apply in the feline world.
    If Walter is in bully mode Jozef just accepts it and gets out of his way, cats don’t sulk. He sometimes waits for an opportunity and when Walt’s back is turned he gets his revenge by jumping on him. Or another time he marches up to him and challenges him, there they sit eyeballing each other, tails swinging and then Walt creeps slowly away.
    They never seem to have decided who is actually top cat since Ebony died, she WAS the boss but thankfully they never hurt each other, it blows over quickly.

  5. My sister’s cat Kobe scent marks more than Monty. Kobe came with the house. The tenants upstairs were on a month to month lease, and we gave them the appropriate notice. While they were still here they said, “We’re taking this cat to the Humane Society. He is jealous of the baby, doesn’t get along with our other cat and the dog chases him around so much that he hides in the closet all day. Our other cat won’t let him eat or use the litter box.” So this was Kobe’s life. We told them to let us take him when they left. Kobe felt a great need to scent mark constantly. But one change in the apartment decreased the scent marking by at least half. I bought Kobe a used cat tree and cleaned it up for him. Despite Monty’s dismay (“Where are you taking MY new thing?”) we put it upstairs for Kobe in a sunny spot by the window. My sister says after Kobe climbed to the top perch he got a different attitude. “Look at him,” she will say, “He thinks he owns the whole world from up there.” Having the higher perch gave him confidence. He’s been more accepting of me petting him, he hides less (if at all) and he doesn’t scent mark as much. He is still a cat nip junkie. And when Monty tried to stick his nose into Kobe’s house (my sister’s apartment upstairs) Kobe didn’t run and hide, but took a swipe at Monty’s nose. There were no injuries, and we were glad to see Kobe being confident, not scared. We would love it if the two cats could keep each other company, but we won’t force anything.

    • The general gist of what you are saying seems to be that the more stresses a cat feels the more he marks and vice versa. This makes sense.

      The classic stress induced scent marking is peeing on the cat owner’s bed. The bed is an area that strongly smells of the owner and is a place where a cat will feel more relaxed and he reinforces that feeling by adding his scent.

      This sort of thing can happen if the owner is away a lot leaving her cat at home alone.

      • Kobe has urinated in my sister’s laundry basket containing her dirty clothes a few times. She finally got a cover for it, so now he can’t get in there. Maybe he wouldn’t do that now that he has his new cat tower and all the confidence that comes from looking down on everybody. I doubt she’d want to test my theory. At least he never peed in her bed.

        I should send some of her photos of Kobe or see if she would like to pick some out and write an article about him. He is a very different cat from Monty in many respects, but similar in others. If it were not for us, he probably would not have survived. A timid, frightened cat like Kobe would not have very good luck getting adopted from a shelter. We were shocked that they would even think of dumping him there.

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