“It must be a very pretty dance,” said Alice timidly.
—Alice in Wonderland
ON YOUR WAY OUT THE DOOR IN THE MORNING, YOU TAKE ONE last look at those beautiful red and gold drapes. They’re a month old now, and were so very, very costly, but worth every penny because they bring the whole room alive, especially when the wind catches them, as it does now, and sets them in motion. As you turn to walk away, you catch a movement just below your field of vision. Your gaze focuses and drops like a vaulter’s pole.
Ah, love! You sigh. It’s kitty.
The Aslan-like all-white Maine coon with gooseberry eyes, that extra beat in your heart, has come with his leonine grace into the room. You love to watch him walk. Tail straight up in the air at the moment, like a king holding up the banners of his own royal procession. Is there anything so regal as a cat? His nose comes to a point like one of the Great Pyramids; the tips of his ears could puncture a Doberman. Magnificent.
Moved, you decide to call out to him, to say good-bye one more time before you leave. Before you can do so, you see him stop near the drapes. His tail, you now notice, is shivering, quivering—vibrating. How fascinating, you think, like a proud mother. These cats and their idiosyncrasies. Now he’s picking up his rear paws and setting them down, up and down, like a little person marching in place. Such curious quirks in him today! Maybe it’s a good-bye dance. Poor little guy, he’s obviously missing you already. Pawing in place, his tail vibrating, he makes your heart just about want to burst, and you are again about to call out to him when something catches your eye, something that makes you realize that what is emerging from Sasha is not an emanation of reciprocated love but a mist of urine, parallel to the floor and surely destroying its target, your gorgeous eight-hundred-dollar drapes. The wind that had toyed with them a minute ago now carries to your nose one of the most foully pungent of animal odors.
Your beloved cat has just:
a. forgotten where the litter box is
b. lost his mind
c. engaged in a catlike expression of excitement that you need to learn to accept, because it’s utterly incurable
d. spray marked
e. urinated to show you that he resents you for something you did or didn’t do
(Hint: The answer is definitely not c or e, two common fallacies.)
Sometimes when I speak to a cat owner for the first time, he will start our conversation about his cats with a big sigh, and I, without having heard anything at all about the cats’ behavioral issues, will interject and say, “You must have a spraying issue.” I then have to talk him out of the notion that I’m a cat psychic. I’m no psychic, but the sense of frustration and hopelessness that I hear in that sigh tells me everything I need to know.
Spraying is a major reason that cats get sent to shelters, or put out on the street. My job is to end the spraying and change the storyline. Like the director of a movie, I insist on my own ending, the happily-ever-after ending with the cat and the owner staying together. And I always get my ending, because spraying is surprisingly easy to remedy. Let’s start by understanding feline marking behavior, of which urine marking is only the most upsetting variety.
MARKING FOR COMMUNICATION
Feline marking is inspired by complex emotional and territorial motivations. A territorial animal, the cat has quite sensibly evolved many ways of advertising what it considers to be the boundaries of its territory, and conveying information about itself. An animal that hunts alone cannot afford to be out of commission due to avoidable fights among its own kind. So, to avoid fights, the cat has evolved an elaborate communications system, which involves various kinds of marking. Most of the time, cats use one of the several forms of marking that are no problem to their owners.
FACIAL MARKING AND BODY MARKING
When a cat rubs its face or parts of its body on vertical surfaces like chairs and chair legs, posts, and trees, it is depositing secretions from various facial and bodily glands in order to add its scent and pheromones to these objects, making the environment more familiar and comfortable for himself. Facial marking and body marking are harmless, but they’re important to the cat, so they should not be discouraged.
Friendly cats may exchange face- and body-gland secretions with each other to aid in developing a group scent and a feeling of identification with the household group. This habit further debunks the myth that cats are solitary. Cats have rich and elaborate means to communicate with one another and even to form close and lasting bonds.
Friendly Marking, or the Cute Stuff
All marking by cats leaves scent, and some marking is easy to observe, once you know what to look for. But if you don’t, you may not even recognize some forms of marking as marking: facial marking, which includes chinning, bunting, cheek marking, and lip marking; and other forms of rubbing with various body parts. These are just plain cute to watch. In fact, many times when you see your cat doing something adorable, she is either scent marking or issuing an invitation to decrease the distance between the two of you. When she rubs against your legs with her face or flanks, do you think she’s stroking you with affection? As a Hemingway character once said, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so. What she is most likely doing is leaving her scent and friendly pheromones and mixing your scents together. These important ingredients all help to form a social glue.
However, I believe that a cat may sometimes rub your leg as a sort of proxy for your head, which she can’t reach—and then she may be trying to express something closer to affection.
When a cat head-bunts your head or face it’s more about bonding and closeness—reminiscent of kittenhood with Mom—and, I think, closer to a true sign of affection. My Jasper Moo Foo is a master bunter. He lowers his forehead and pushes it insistently into mine, over and over, followed by nuzzling into my neck, chin, or cheek like there’s no tomorrow. Considering that his “arms” are already around my neck, it’s utterly heartwarming. Recent studies have shown that cat pheromones and human pheromones are similar in make-up. This may be one reason cats and humans can become so attached to one another.
What about that business of rolling around on the carpet? Also cute, but it’s often a way of scent marking. Rubbing her chin on something like she’s scratching it? You guessed it. Cats will also rub against one another as a greeting, to create a group scent that reinforces their place in the group, or to carry with them a sort of olfactory seal of approval from a recently rubbed superior. A group scent helps cats to feel affiliated with other cats in the group, which makes them feel more secure, and better able to get along with each other, thus less in need of urine marking.
FRIENDLY VERSUS ANXIOUS OR AGGRESSIVE MARKING
When a cat rubs his face on objects, he’s releasing and depositing pheromones that are friendly and help him feel confident that he’s in familiar surroundings. Other forms of marking, however, may signal less-positive feelings. Spraying and middening are emotionally intense behaviors, driven by either aggression or anxiety (or both). They’re very different from the calm, affiliative forms of facial marking. Claw marking, except when done for exercise or to remove old claw sheaths, is a form of territorial marking that helps cats feel more confident. Cats may also claw to release pent-up emotions or tension.
Urine and the Not-so-Friendly Forms of Marking
Compared to fighting, urine spraying conserves energy, which is vital to every animal’s survival. If a cat regularly puts out more energy than it takes in, it cannot survive. Most sterilized cats find that marking their territory by claw marking (see Chapter 11) gives them enough confidence that they don’t need to resort to marking by spraying—which can be destructive, foul-smelling, or both—or by middening (see Chapter 8), which are more emphatic forms of marking. Excessive urine or claw marking may be the only sign you’ll get that your cat is trying to make himself feel better in his environment.
Because urine marking is not only a way that cats mark territory, but a way to communicate and gather information, it’s not uncommon to have more than one sprayer in a multicat household, though some spray may be overt and some covert. Confident or high-ranking cats may spray while another cat is watching, either to bolster their already high self-confidence, or to send a clear territorial message, or both. How convenient that nature endowed spraying with such theatrics! Less-confident cats may spray in secret while no other cat is watching, perhaps as an outlet after a recent distressing encounter with an aggressor, once the two have separated. Because other cats can perceive spraying as a sign of aggression, doing it in secret, while no other cat is present, is a must for the less-confident or lower-ranking cat, or he could invite attack.
There are several ways in which cats deposit urine.
• Elimination urination (see Chapter 8), which is not a form of marking
• Spray marking, which you saw in Sasha the Maine coon, usually done on a vertical surface, though some cats switch it up a bit and spray, from a standing position, on a horizontal surface
• Non-spray urine marking (from a squatting position). This may be done on horizontal surfaces (like the carpet) if the cat is not confident enough to spray urine vertically. If done on an owner’s items, this could be considered associative urine marking (see the Associative Marking section).
Your goal, of course, is to restrict your own cats to elimination urination, and specifically elimination urination that occurs in the litter box. But before I turn to how you can assure that your cats only urinate, and only in the box, let’s look at the other kinds of urine deposits—spray and non-spray urine marking—to get a better understanding of why your cats might be moved to resort to them.
VERTICAL VERSUS HORIZONTAL SPRAYING
The higher on a wall or vertical surface that a cat sprays, the higher the threat or challenge he’s intending to convey. Urine marking on the horizontal may be done for territorial purposes or emotional release, as with vertical marking, but it’s generally done more by a lower-ranking or less-confident cat.
Spray Marking—Not-So-Good Vibrations
What you witnessed in Sasha at the start of this chapter was the most common kind of spraying, in which a cat sprays on a vertical surface, standing up, tail raised in the air (the curious vibrating tail), paws treading the ground in a sort of march or kneading (perhaps to mark with paw scent), an intense or euphoric look on the cat’s face, and then of course the urine, forcefully shooting straight out onto a vertical surface: walls, windows, curtains, doors, sofas, cabinets, stereo speakers, television or laptop screens, your leg, a pile of laundry, the outside of the litter box or the wall behind it, and fences and bushes outside—you name it! And it can be a little bit of urine or a lot.
So what’s with the good vibrations? Think of the vibrating tail as a sort of lightning rod. Indoors, you’ll most often see cats’ tails vibrate whenever they are overly excited, agitated, unsure, and just need to relieve the tension. I see it most often when a cat has decided, for whatever reason, that he needs to hold still in a certain spot. My cat Jasper likes to jump up on his cat tree or other elevated surface where he eagerly waits for me to pet him. He is overcome with excitement, yet he knows it’s in his best interest to wait and stand still in the spot where I usually pet him. During the agonizing wait, his upright tail vibrates like the leaves of an Aspen tree. A cat’s quivering tail seems to release energy. A dog’s wagging tail or fit-to-burst wiggling of his whole body might be in the same category. The pent-up, intense, emotional energy needs to flow out somewhere while the cat is holding still. So a vibrating tail by itself is not a bad thing. It’s all about releasing an intense excitability that could be caused by something either positive or negative. It’s only when the vibrating tail is a prelude to spray marking that the vibrations cease to be good (as far as you’re concerned, anyway).
Spray marking is particularly unnerving to cat owners because of the damage it can do to expensive objects like couches, television or laptop screens, and silk curtains, of course! One cat was reported to have started a fire by spraying an electrical outlet.
This may seem surprising to you, but some cats tend to spray near their core territory, which is where their food, sleeping, or resting resources are located. Others spray more on the perimeter or home range: on walls, doors, and windows. Generally, if your cat is spraying near his core territory, or along internal pathways and borders like hallways or entrances into the place where you feed your cats, it’s because he’s in conflict with other cats within the house (or perhaps even a dog or child) who use the same areas. If your cat sprays around the inside perimeter of the house (on or under windows, on furniture near windows, or on walls and doors that lead outside), he’s spraying the boundary line of his home range as a message to outside cats and even as a preemptive strategy in case an intruder makes its way in. (He’s also making himself feel a lot better. Spraying decreases any feelings of stress or worry.) Some cats may be in conflict with both indoor and outdoor cats.
WHAT IS THAT LOOK ON HIS FACE?
Do you want to know where cats are urine marking in your home? Then watch to see where any of them open their mouths a bit, or gape, and sometimes grimace. That’s a sign that they are taking in not only the scent that’s been laid down, but the taste as well. For cocktail party chatter, you will want to know this is a Flehmen response and that it involves something called the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ. A cat can take in the taste and scent of something simultaneously with this organ, which is just behind the incisors in the roof of the mouth. (Horses, cattle, and sheep also have a Flehmen response.)
Horizontal Urine Spraying Versus Horizontal Non-Spray Urine Marking
You might conclude that if you find urine on a horizontal surface, like a floor or bed, your cat is just urinating outside of the box, not marking. Not so fast. First of all, if you see a puddle on the floor, the urine might actually have been sprayed onto a wall before it ran down the wall onto the surface beneath. Or your cat could have been doing a form of spray marking called horizontal urine spraying—perhaps standing on a bed or on a table and then urine spraying the surface behind him. It has the same motivations, and is done with some of the same postures and theatrics, as the more usual kind of spraying, just with a horizontal target. You can identify horizontal urine spraying by the long thin stream of urine left behind, instead of the roundish puddle that signifies other motivations. Your cat can also squat on the floor and place urine as if he’s urinating in the litter box, but his motive is to mark. This is called horizontal non-spray urine marking and it can be done on any flat surface like a table, carpet, counter, or bed.
Horizontal non-spray urine marking can be particularly difficult to distinguish from regular inappropriate urination, but if (as explained in Chapter 8) you actually got the chance to witness the act and saw the cat smell the location beforehand, and not sniff at his urine afterward, there’s a chance he was marking. A merely urinating cat will often do the opposite: He’s indifferent to smelling the location ahead of time, but he may inspect his work afterward in order to decide whether he has covered up sufficiently. Of course, many cats who have been caught in the act and reprimanded have learned to run off immediately, which can make it difficult for you to discern whether the cat is horizontal non-spray urine marking or just urinating. When in doubt, make sure your cat’s litter box situation follows the guidelines in chapters 5 and 8 and that he has been thoroughly checked out by your vet for medical issues. If all is well in terms of the cat’s health, then there’s a chance that he is horizontal non-spray urine marking. Because flat-surface marking is less of a threat or challenge to other cats than full-on vertical spraying, less confident cats may perform this behavior to claim certain locations, but confident cats can as well. If your cats are doing this kind of marking, you will need to address how they are getting along (see Chapter 7).
SERIAL SPRAYERS AND GRAFFITI ARTISTS
Cats may have their own individual signatures when they spray. One cat I knew, Atticus, sprayed his signature like an urban graffiti artist, or tagger: His squiggle marks always formed a perfect upside-down triangle on his chosen canvas, the owner’s velvet-tufted couch. There should be studies on this, or at least a gallery opening.
Atticus’s owner told me, “He is quite proud of his work. When it starts to fade, he will even touch it up.” It’s true: If the scent of their spray is fading, that can trigger cats to remark a sprayed area to make sure there is no misunderstanding about whose area is whose—and when they last patrolled it. Cats can also spray out of habit long after the original trigger for the spraying is no longer present.
Your cat may squat and deposit urine on items belonging to you. It can make a cat feel very confident to mix its scent with that of the owner. This is called associative urine marking. Your cat will single out your bed or other items that smell like or signify you. He may even do it in front of you. This is not contempt for you, or dislike of you. It could be that your cat feels his relationship with you is not optimal. The most common cause of associative marking? Your being away for an unusual period of time. The location of the marking? Your bed: It smells like you, and it is a symbol of you and of safety. Schedule changes are another common cause. A somewhat less-common cause is that of an owner punishing or reprimanding a cat, so that the cat associatively urine marks on the owner’s bed and clothing. He does this to restore his self-confidence and lower his anxiety—but not out of spite. Associative urine marking, in short, is most likely an indication that your cat is having anxiety about something in the environment (which could include you) or is under stress because of a health issue. I view associative marking as even more emotional in its causes than other forms of marking.
WHAT CATS COMMUNICATE WHEN THEY SPRAY: TERRITORY MARKING, INFORMATION GATHERING, RELATIONAL PMAIL, SEXUAL ADVERTISING, PICK-ME-UPS
Once you have determined that your cat is spraying, you can best figure out how to stop the behavior by understanding why he’s doing it. Spraying is animated by motivations very different from mere urination. Sprayers may be marking territory, gathering information from other cats in their territory, advertising their sexual availability, building confidence, or releasing emotions. Among house cats, spraying breaks down as follows: They have had conflict-ridden encounters with outdoor cats (49 percent) or aggressive interactions with indoor cats (28 percent); they’ve been restricted from going outdoors without having been given compensatory outlets for their energies, emotions, and needs (26 percent); they’ve been moved into a new home (9 percent); they have found new, perhaps alarming, objects in the home (6 percent); or they’ve had poor interactions with their owners (6 percent).1 We have email; cats have pmail.
What are these messages that are delivered by such oddly behaving little postmen? What are they trying to say? When a cat marks with urine, think of him as leaving a personal business card with his pertinent information (age, sex, health), including even when he was last at that location and his level of assertiveness. Outdoors or in a multicat household, the network of messages among many different cats can start to resemble less a pmail than a chat room or social media like, say, MySprays or Spraysbook.
Marking Territory, Avoiding Conflict in Shared Territory
Spraying is one of the most visible consequences of the increased territoriality that cats experience when they reach social maturity. Spraying among wildcats or feral cats is quite normal—about as natural as breathing. Outdoors, tomcats during breeding season have been observed to spray twenty-two times per hour in one study, and over sixty times in another. Nonbreeding males spray about thirteen times per hour, and females four to six times.2 Not unlike a rancher digging post holes for a fence, toms may spray every fifteen feet or so along their paths. Because other cats will spend more time investigating the urine if it is recent, sprayers put a premium on that zesty freshness.
Some people think that sprayers want to expel other cats from their territory, but although spraying does give a clear message to other cats that they’re in someone else’s territory, spray marks have rarely been observed to act as a deterrent.3 The sprayer leaves a message about when he was last there so that other cats can consult their calendars and rearrange their schedules accordingly. Spraying may help cats to share a hunting range or overlapping territories without coming into contact and risking altercations. Such time-sharing is like a détente in a Cold War: The cats are trying to avoid all-out nuclear war. A cat may time-share until he finds that he has the confidence to take over the territory altogether.
(Sniff here) Mr. Happy Paws
I was here: After sundown Reason: To spray mark 5 locations in my home range Assertiveness: Strong Health: Excellent (just need a teeth cleaning) Message: Try not to come around after sundown
Sample Calling Card
Cats will also spray to gather information about other cats in the area. This is pmail in the truest sense: They actually want to see if other cats will write back, so to speak. A response would tell the sprayer whether another cat is in the area or even sharing his hunting territory. Why does he care? So he can protect himself, either by marking again, ceding territory, or avoiding the other cat. Much of urine marking of any kind is about territory. Marking helps cats figure out how to time-share their overlapping territories without having to risk fighting.
I come here on Tuesdays—What about you?
The Sexual Politics of Spraying: Intact Toms and Estral Queens
Only in unsterilized cats is sexual advertising a common motivation for spraying. Spraying to convey reproductive information is most common in intact toms and estral queens, where it is uniquely accompanied by a bansheelike yowling absent in neutered and spayed cats. Intact males spray more frequently around estral females, and the girls spray more often around the intact boys. The spray clearly gives off information about reproductive status, because males will spend more time investigating the spray marks of estral females than of those not in heat. For the majority of cat owners who have not spayed or neutered their cats, I recommend doing so. Among other benefits, most or all spraying goes away; sterilization decreases marking behavior about 90 percent of the time.4
That doesn’t mean that a spayed or neutered cat will stop spraying completely. Far from it. Although altering a cat does eliminate most spraying—and all sexually motivated forms of spraying—the fact is that most of the thousands of spraying cats I’ve worked with had been spayed or neutered long before they began to spray. The sexual motivation to spray may be nonexistent, but the territorial drive to secure resources and to feel safer and less anxious may still cause your cat to spray. Both males and females, altered or not, may spray. Yet the assumption that only males spray is so strong that many a cat owner in, say, a household with one male and one female cat, has taken her male cat to a shelter—only to discover that the culprit is still with her. While it’s true that males are more likely to spray than females, you shouldn’t take anyone to a shelter. I can help you end the spraying, and quite easily, in most cases!
Spraying and Conflict
Sometimes spraying can follow the stress of fighting. Conversely, spraying may cause tension between cats that then leads to fighting. (For information on cat-to-cat aggression, see Chapter 7.)
I’m Feeling Worried
Cats may spray when frustrated, upset, or subject to competition or challenge. A spraying cat may even have separation anxiety. A cat sprays to increase his sense of security by surrounding himself with, well, himself. The more anxious your cat is, the more he’ll need familiar odors such as his own in his surroundings.
I’m feeling threatened. I don’t feel good about what just happened. This will make me feel better. Ahhhh.
Why does your cat spray? It’s not always easy to say. A cat’s stress thresholds are set both both by genetics and by developmental, social, and environmental factors. Nature: If the cat’s parents were nervous rather than confident (the father’s heritable temperament is especially important), the cat is more likely to react badly to stress. Nurture: If the cat had too little exposure to a variety of stimuli during the sensitive period of two to seven weeks of age, it may be nervous and anxious when exposed to anything at all out of the ordinary. And, of course, your home environment is also a factor: who else is in the household (both people and animals), what resources are available to the cat, the degree of competition for those resources, etc.
We usually represent a source of contentment and safety to our cats—just as they can signify contentment and peacefulness to us. We feed them and give them the attention they need, helping them feel like life is good and their survival secure. But for cats who are particularly anxious, we can find it challenging to anticipate their every need. Picture one of those particularly anxious cats meowing adamantly, demanding to be petted. What if the owner’s hands are full or he’s busy doing something else and doesn’t want to be distracted? Stand back! The cat may be so in need of lowering her anxiety that she backs right up to a wall to spray. The resulting feelings of contentment can last for days, which is why you may be baffled to see spray marks appear only every three or so days. Clients often tell me their sprayer is the “sweetest” cat of the bunch (quotation marks alert you to the anthropomorphic trap). But sweet may actually translate as needy, anxious, fearful, as in the cat who seems to have a constant need for attention and follows you from room to room. It makes sense that the neediest or most worried cats are the ones who are most driven by the urge toward confidence building and release that comes with spraying.
“My cat is spraying to get back at me or out of spite.” People often give this reason for their cat’s spraying, but cats never spray because they’re trying to get back at you. They simply can’t think that way. Don’t assume they’re being insubordinate or disrespectful. It might lead you to yell at them, swat them, or rub their nose in the urine. This kind of behavior from you will not change your cat’s, but it will make your cat afraid, and you far less popular. One more thing: Upsetting your cat will sometimes make him spray even more.
CASE STUDY OF BABYTAT: THE CAT WHO WANTED TO COME HOME
Babytat, a four-year-old orange male tabby, was spraying all over a beautiful home. He’d gotten a full checkup, urinalysis, blood work, and X-rays, prior to our consultation. Susan and Jeff, his owners, had first introduced him to me by email, then fleshed out their description of his problems in the questionnaire I’d sent them to fill out.
The Problem: Spraying All Over the House
Excerpted from the owner’s description:
We have had Babytat since he was twelve weeks old. He has been the best cat ever until he turned about two years old and he started spraying everywhere inside our home.
One of the items sprayed was my husband Jeff’s solid mahogany antique apothecary chest. The brass knobs now sport an oxidized patina.
He has sprayed the back of the couch near the living room window every other day for the last year, every custom drape in the house, the front door, the wall next to the sliding glass door, and Jeff’s leather office chair in the den. The last straw was when he sprayed inside the grand piano that my husband bought for me for our anniversary!
The kids and I love Babytat and we do not want to give him up to a shelter (who would want a cat that sprays?). As a compromise we have decided to put Babytat outside. It kills us to see him scratching at the door to be let in while we’re all inside enjoying ourselves, but he will spray as soon as he comes in the house. Our Babytat wants to come home (and I really don’t want to get rid of my husband!). We are at an impasse. Please help!!
As I drove up to Susan and Jeff’s house for an on-site visit, I saw an orange tabby sitting like a statue at the bottom of their long, winding gravel driveway. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I could see him gamely trotting behind the car, striped tail held high, as if he had shepherded many a visitor to his front door.
Even before I opened the car door to step out, I could already hear his loud cries. “Meooww, meoow, meoooow!” These were the kind of drawn-out meows that signified he was really anxious or in great anticipation of something. Once out of the car, I knelt down to say hello for a few moments and scratched him under the chin. As I headed for the front door he was already several steps ahead of me, meowing and looking back every few steps to make sure I was following him. He was probably smart enough to know I was currently his best chance to get inside the front door.
This must be Babytat, I thought, who, as Susan had put it, was “the cat who wanted to come home.”
From the sounds inside, both Babytat and I could both sense the exact moment the door was to be opened. He was like a sprinter in the blocks.
“Hi, I’m Susan,” said the woman who opened the door a small crack. She expertly stuck her leg in the opening to foil Babytat’s dash inside. “We’re so glad you’re here! I can see you’ve already met Babytat.”
Once I was inside, Jeff stepped forward and shook my hand vigorously. “It was either me or the cat,” he said.
Suddenly the voice of what was most likely a teenage girl rang out from upstairs. “You, Dad! You need to be the one to go!”
They all laughed a bit but then caught themselves. Outside, Baby-cat was frantically pawing at the window.
I remembered from Susan’s email that a number of the places he sprayed were near windows and doors.
“Do you ever see him run from window to window?” I asked.
“Yes!” said Jeff.
“Sometimes hissing all the way,” said Susan. “Strays run around here sometimes.”
I asked Susan to show me the other places she’d mentioned his marking, including Jeff’s office chair and the grand piano. They, too, were near windows. After reviewing the questionnaire and talking to Jeff and Susan at some length, I deduced that the most likely reason for Babytat’s marking was also the most common one.
The Diagnosis: Territory Marking
Babytat was clearly worried about the perimeter of his home range being breached. Anxious about outside cats, he was marking the perimeter of his territory.
In a nutshell, Babytat had been spraying inside the home for at least one reason—as a territorial or emotional response to seeing outside cats—and maybe other reasons as well. According to Susan’s email, the spraying had begun when he entered social maturity, at around the age of two. Keep in mind that the outside cats had probably always been out there, but Babytat just wouldn’t have cared when he was younger.
C.A.T. Plan for Spraying, Other Forms of Urine Marking, and Middening
There are veterinarians, certified animal behaviorists, and even “certified behaviorists” who will hold up their end of a discussion about cat spraying only to conclude, “Regardless, the key to treating spraying is pharmacological.” This is where I part ways with many of the experts.
As long as we can identify and remove the reason your cat is spraying, my C.A.T. Plan works to eliminate marking without your having to drug your cat, and it will fit any cat, including yours. Before embarking on the Plan, identify the sprayer. And keep in mind that in a multicat household, the odds that you have more than one sprayer (even if you’ve caught only one) go up with the number of cats you own.
CEASE the Unwanted Behavior
Step 1: Clean the Scene
Clean the soiled areas with the special enzyme cleaner and methods discussed in Chapter 8. It’s crucial to remove the urine smell as soon as possible to prevent a sprayer like Babytat from forming an association between the soiled area and his spraying instinct. If you find new spray at any time, be sure to clean it immediately.
Step 2: Remove the Triggers
Removing the stress triggers that affect a cat’s mood and emotional state and cause him to mark is the single most important part of the spraying C.A.T. Plan. We could work on all the rest of the C.A.T. Plan, but if you don’t remove or address the trigger for spraying, the cat will continue to mark. Here are some of the most common triggers, from most common to least.
• The number one reason cats spray inside the home is that they see, hear, or smell another cat outside and feel threatened about safety or territory. Your cat may have perceived an outside cat from within the house, or on an outdoor excursion, or—much worse—might even have encountered the strange cat inside the house if you brought it in or it entered through a cat door. There were barbarians at the gate! And she let one in! However, even a cat you’ve adopted and brought home can be less threatening to your cat than one whose progress he’s been monitoring outside.
Cat owners have said to me, “But I don’t ever see any cats in the yard or in the area.” Aside from the fact that humans just aren’t looking (and listening) as hard as cats, outdoor cats tend to come out to hunt between three and five in the morning, when all the rodents are out and the people are not and there’s usually just enough light for easy hunting. If your cat is awake, prowling his territory, he will notice them.
• The sprayer is not getting along with a cat inside the home, he’s feeling territorial about important resources in the home, he is getting bullied by another cat, or he’s anxious about changes occurring in the hierarchy of your multicat household social system. It’s also fairly common for the sprayer to be reacting to having been victimized by another indoor cat who saw a cat outside and redirected his aggression onto the sprayer-to-be.
• The cats have to share food and water resources that are all located in the same place.
• You installed a cat door so your cat can go outside—but he feels more unsafe because his territory is now more easily breached.
• You have been punishing or reprimanding your cat—or even another animal in the house.
• Your schedule has changed (you’re home for shorter, longer, or different periods of the day than before).
• You feed your cat on a schedule in which food is not sufficiently available, or you have simply changed his feeding schedule.
• You have stopped allowing your cat to sleep with you.
• Your cat is not getting as much attention as usual.
• You changed cat food brands or flavors, or switched to another kind of cat litter.
• You or someone else brought an unfamiliar item or scent into the environment. It could be anything—a new couch, a visitor whose clothes smell of cat or dog, a shopping cart whose wheels have picked up some worrisome outside smells on the way home, or even the soles of your shoes, which have brought in the smell of outdoor cats crossing your property (in which case you might want to remove your shoes as a precaution before coming indoors).
• You’re having work done on your home. Remodeling brings in strangers and noise and dust and literally upends a cat’s world. Remodeling is a huge stress trigger, especially if done in poor taste.
• You moved to a new home.
• A new person or animal was added to the household (baby, spouse, dog, cat) or there’s tension with someone or some animal in the household.
• Medical issues are causing your cat to feel physical stress, which usually causes emotional stress, which can in turn also negatively affect how your cats get along, which can in turn—are you ready?—lead to marking.
After reading this merely partial list you’ll probably ask yourself, When doesn’t a cat spray?! You might even be grateful that, given the many possible reasons to spray, you have cats who aren’t spraying. But for cats who are spraying, there are many things you can do to put an end to it. Let’s start with the number one reason for spraying—outside cats—and how you can remove that particular trigger.
The problem of outside cats is greatly underappreciated; outside cats can have an enormous impact on the lives of your cats. For best results, I strongly recommend that you act as if there are outdoor cats even if you haven’t seen any, and carry out the following techniques accordingly.
BLOCK THE WINDOWS
For the next thirty days, you are going to have to block any windows that permit a view of areas where there are outdoor cats so that your cat can no longer see them.
I can hear you setting this book down. “Did she just say to ‘block’ the windows?” you ask your housemate.
“Surely not, dear,” your housemate says. “I’m sure she must have said to knock on the windows.”
Nope. I repeat: Block them.
And while you’re blocking your windows, you’ll also work on deterring outside cats from your yard, which I discuss below. After you have successfully deterred the outside cats, but rarely before thirty days have passed, you can uncover your windows.
Blocking does not mean covering the entire window, just those parts of the window through which the cat can see intruders. How much has to be covered depends on what kind of vantage point your cat has. You should prevent the cat from having access to the windowsills if possible—perhaps by putting plants on them (assuming the cat doesn’t like to eat plants, and making sure that the plants are not poisonous, just in case). If there are chairs or other perching places near the windows and you can move them away, do so. There are different ways to go about blocking windows. The easiest and least expensive is to use wax paper and painter’s tape. Put the material high enough that your cat can’t see outside cats by climbing on top of something, or by standing on his hind legs atop the windowsill. In a more decorative vein, you can apply a roll of decorative window film—removable, opaque—from a home-improvement store. Merely closing the drapes is not likely to be effective. Cats can easily figure out how to get behind them for a catbird seat on the world outside.
KEEP OUTSIDE CATS AWAY
To keep cats off your property, I recommend remote deterrents. The type to use in smaller confined areas, or to guard a sliding glass door or window, is motion triggered and expels air from a can day and night. Another deterrent comes in the form of a motion-sensing water sprinkler; one manufacturer claims it will spritz invaders throughout an area up to 1,200 square feet. Finally, there is a deterrent with a motion-activated ultrasonic sound that the manufacturer says monitors up to 220 square feet. It emits bursts of ultrasonic sound that, like most rat sounds, cats can hear but you can’t. The sound startles cats and teaches them to stay away. Turn off these deterrents when your own cat goes outside, so that he doesn’t trigger the motion-sensor himself. Do they work? Actually, yes, as unlikely as that may sound. Cats are looking for a low-maintenance yard to prowl in; they have a lot of choices. A hint of unpleasantness in your yard, and they’re off to visit the Joneses. Just follow the manufacturer’s directions for your particular property layout.
If outdoor cats are an issue, it’s also a good idea to remove outdoor bird feeders and any food left outside, so as not to attract the cats. You can still feed the birds and even the cats if you want to, but in a location where your cat will not be able to see the outdoor cats.
Deterring outside cats can have a ripple effect of curing other behavior problems within your multicat home, such as reducing redirected aggression, which can in turn reduce spraying or unwanted elimination.
REINTRODUCE INDOOR CATS
If the stressor causing your cat to spray is not outside cats but conflict with a fellow cat in the household, then, in addition to adding more resource locations (per the Transform the Territory section later in this chapter), review the suggestions for dealing with cat-to-cat aggression in chapters 3 and 7. If none of these interventions help, you may need to reintroduce your cats as friends. (See Chapter 4 for the reintroduction process.)
If the problem is not outside cats or conflict with a cat inside the house, it’s easy to see how to deal with a lot of the other triggers on the list. You could give the cat more attention if she needs it, stop yelling at or trying to punish her, be consistent in the food or litter you are using or make changes to them very gradually, feed more often, or in places where the cat won’t feel encroached upon by other cats or animals.
If your cat seems to be marking in response to someone new in your home, have that person make friends with your cat by feeding, grooming, and playing with her. (See Desensitize, and Create Positive Associations in Chapter 7.) If the new person is a new baby who can’t do any of these things, much less duck a stream of spray, then just make sure to pair the presence of the baby with good things for your cat, like extra treats, play time, and affection.
If your cat marks on new items brought into the home, such as furniture or rugs, drape a sheet or towel with your scent over the items for several days. You can also add pheromones to the sheet or towel, whether synthetic or harvested from your cat (see Chapter 4). And while you are implementing the C.A.T. Plan for spraying, keep foreign-smelling items that might get marked (including things that your guests bring into the house) out of your cat’s reach. Items such as new purchases of yours, or things belonging to your new spouse, should be put inside a closet or cabinet or behind closed doors. Another option would be to mix these items in with familiar items belonging to you, whose scent the cat is accustomed to. You can also try misting synthetic pheromones on the items one to two times a week.
When you move into a new home, put your cat in a fully equipped safe room (see Chapter 4) and introduce him slowly to the rest of the house, playing with him and giving him treats as he explores.
Step 3: Gradual Reacclimation
If you have left your cat outside because of the spraying, as Babytat’s owners did, let him back in. I advised Susan and Jeff to start the process gradually, allowing Babytat into only one room at first, and then letting him out into more and more of the house each day, making sure to reduce his anxiety and build his self-confidence by playing with him before, during, and after his entrance into each of the rooms.
Step 4: Interrupt the Pending Behavior
CONVENTIONAL ADVICE ALERT
The traditional advice for dealing with spraying in progress is to stop it with a negative outcome such as yelling, clapping your hands, or stomping your feet. These may be effective at the time, but they may also elevate the cat’s background level of anxiety and increase his spraying elsewhere. It’s also possible with some cats that they may perceive the attention as a reward—or just learn to spray when you’re not around.
If you see your cat in a location where he typically sprays, especially if he’s intently sniffing the area, or performing any part of the dance that signals a spraying is about to begin, the best advice is to calmly deter or distract him before he’s actually started to spray. If at all possible, you want to act before the spraying begins. Bring out a toy; if it’s an interactive toy, lure him away from the area, and then give him a little playtime. If you have only a noninteractive toy on hand, toss it near him without hitting him. In addition to interrupting the pending behavior with a toy, you will change his mood and emotional state for the better.
If your cat ends up spraying anyway, calmly remove him from the scene and clean up the mess. Do not try to distract or interrupt, and do not yell or punish.
Step 5: Prevent Re-marking
Make the marked areas inaccessible or otherwise not attractive. You can use any of the barriers mentioned in the last chapter, or you can place over the soiled areas a product called Catpaper, a sort of diaper for your floor or wall that consists of an absorbent pad with a polyethylene backing. You can also try hanging strips of aluminum foil on sprayed objects. Your cat may be deterred by the noise and splash of spraying on the foil, a concept that has even been put into practice by Parisian architects who’ve designed jagged “anti-pipi” walls to splash urine back onto intrepid human urinators.
ATTRACT Your Cat to New Behaviors to Replace the Marking Behavior
While you’re carrying out the Cease (and Transform) steps, you are also going to help your cat build up new, positive associations in the locations where he once felt stress or worry. You will also be helping him decrease his anxiety by getting him to perform other acceptable forms of marking in place of urine marking.
Encourage Facial Marking
After you’ve cleaned up the urine with the appropriate cleaner, it’s time to help your cat reassociate the marked areas as a place for facial marking as opposed to the conflicting drive of urine marking. You can do this in one or both of two ways. The first is to spray feline pheromone (see Chapter 4) two to three times a day in the urine-marked locations for at least thirty days, and then once a day for an additional thirty days. In one study of a feline pheromone sprayed onto marked areas, the pheromone reduced urine marking in 74 to 91 percent of households, and middening in 33 to 52 percent of households.5
The second thing you can do is to gently pet your cat’s face with a sock (see Chapter 4 for full details) in order to gather the cat’s own pheromones onto the sock, and then rub the sock on the sprayed area (after it’s been cleaned, of course). Do this one to two times a day for at least thirty days. It can take two weeks before you notice any effects from your use of pheromones, so don’t stop too soon.
But the success of both of these actions is higher when combined with the rest of my C.A.T. Plan. And remember, if you don’t remove the stress trigger that’s causing the spraying, and you don’t use a cleaner that removes the urine smell completely, you probably won’t have much luck with the pheromone products.
Facilitate Claw Marking
Claw marking—in which your cat scratches on cat scratchers, not on furniture!—is another form of territorial marking and a way that your cat can release pent-up stress. Particularly if anxiety is a major cause of your cat’s urine marking (and even if you’re not sure), I highly recommend facilitating his claw marking on scratchers as a substitute outlet for his urge to urine mark. If he has already claw marked his territory, why would he need to mark again, with urine? Not only is the scratch a visual mark, but the glands in your cat’s paws also leave a scent mark. Even if your cat is declawed, you can promote paw marking. Here’s how.
Place cat scratchers in the marked areas. They should be several feet away from pheromone spray or plug-ins. You can start with inexpensive corrugated cardboard scratchers, but you may need to experiment with what your cat prefers. (See Chapter 11 for promoting claw marking where you want it.)
Encourage Body Marking: Rub and Roll
Body marking is another way cats scent mark their territory. To encourage it as a substitute for urine marking, loosely sprinkle dried catnip or catnip spray in the now-clean marked location in an area about two to three times the size of your cat. Every time your cat rolls around in the catnip, his mood and emotional state will improve! Do this no more than two to three times a week so as not to diminish the effectiveness of the catnip on your cat. You can also install kitty combs on the protruding corners of walls to promote body rubbing, and even facial marking.
Do a Prey Sequence
Getting your cat to play and complete a prey sequence in a previously marked area for approximately thirty days can do two things. First, it helps him build confidence in an area where he previously experienced stress. A cat that has successfully acted like a cat—stalking, chasing, killing, eating prey, venting excess energy—is a more-confident, less-tense cat. Second, it helps him associate the area with the hunting and eating behavior instead of the urine marking behavior. These behaviors conflict with one another. Review the instructions for a complete prey sequence in Chapter 5.
Place Food Strategically
Placing food on or near soiled areas is an old-school technique that can work, as long as it’s used for approximately thirty days and you’ve also eliminated any anxiety-inducing triggers. If you haven’t addressed the anxiety-inducing triggers, your cat will still mark with urine, just in different areas.
Why does it work? For reasons of hygiene and so as not to attract predators or competitors to important resources such as food, cats will usually not urine mark in areas where they eat. Because the drives compete so strongly, in the beginning you may need to experiment with placing the food in the vicinity of the spraying—to ensure that your cat continues to eat rather than avoiding the area he associates with spray. Then you can move the food toward the exact location over a period of several days. In the beginning, your cat may still spray in a location where you’ve recently placed food. Be patient. Replacing an old behavior with a new one is a process and can take time.
TRANSFORM the Territory
At the same time that we Cease and Attract, we need to Transform the cat’s environment by de-stressing it.
Create Calm in the Environment
To increase your cat’s confidence and calmness, add pheromone plug-ins throughout the home, and apply the pheromone spray in urine-targeted areas, as well as applying it once a day, at about eight inches from the floor (cat-nose height), in additional locations throughout the home that are frequented by your cat (see diagram below for suggestions). Such locations might include the corners where walls meet, the frame of a doorway, the edges of furniture and the legs of a chair. (See Figure 2.) Cats will facial mark in such locations in order to lower their anxiety and increase their confidence. You should also rub your cat’s cheeks and head daily. This kind of rubbing can have a real calming effect, which can reduce urine marking.
In the Transform part of the C.A.T. Plan, you will also use the prey sequence and other forms of play to help him express a normal repertoire of hunting and prey behaviors and thereby improve his mood. Think of how exercise improves your own mood and makes you that much less likely to snap at someone.
You should also increase your cat’s resources and their locations. If important resources are in abundance, your cat will not have so much to worry about. In many multicat households, competition for territorial resources is the first cause for relationships that go downhill and lead to marking. See Chapter 5for more detailed information on territorial transformation, including the full details of litter box maintenance and how to decrease competition for this important resource. In a multicat household, having all your litter boxes in one location could be the only reason your cats are spraying!
Follow-up with Babytat
Within two weeks, Babytat had stopped all spraying and, now that he was back indoors, was a much happier cat. Susan told me that he was also a much more playful and cuddly cat, rubbing up against Jeff and even bunting Jeff on the forehead—the ultimate form of affection from a cat. Susan said the look on Jeff’s face was priceless. Babytat also loved to run over to his cat scratchers and scratch, and then to zoom up his new cat tree. Susan saw how much pent-up energy he had to exert and how much more he seemed like, well, a cat. He curled up and slept on the sofa more, too; he had never done that before because he was busy worriedly sniffing around the house, as if his only job was to patrol and secure territory. If he did ever happen to look out the window and see a cat again, he now had a new way of reducing anxiety, and that was by claw marking on the cat tree and scratchers that were now located in the previously urine-marked areas. Most important, Babytat was able to come in from outside and be a part of the family again.