Animal species who live in social groups have sophisticated methods of interpersonal communication, especially animals who can cause significant harm to each other like dogs. Dogs have developed a social mechanism for preventing conflict through ranking. They are prepared to assume either a leadership or deference position, and they can read another animal’s body language to interpret the intentions. But cats have a somewhat unique social structure. Cats do not eat, sleep, hunt, or socialize in packs as dogs do.
Cats are often solitary creatures. When they mature they go off on their own and claim certain territories. They might share a territory with other cats, but it’s a timeshare approach—they avoid each other whenever possible. They haven’t developed a social system like dogs. Socially, cats who conflict often handle things like two neighbors in an argument. Although one might back down if he thinks he might get injured, neither will ever perceive himself as having a lower status than the other. Cats do not have a system for resolving face-to-face disputes, so face-to-face disputes can be dangerous for them. To avoid conflict, cats communicate indirectly—as in they leave messages.
Cats have different ways of leaving messages for each other, and one way is urine marking. By urine marking, a cat tells other cats of its presence and makes a statement about such things as what piece of property is his and how long ago he was there. Cats can even advertise when they are looking for a mate. All this information is available to other cats in the urine. This way, cats rarely have to meet up with each other.
Cats who live in houses still view their world in the same way as cats who must survive on their own in the wild. They can only use the communication skills that nature gave them. If their world is predictable, there are no conflicts, they are spayed or neutered, and they don’t need a mate, cats have little reason to mark and probably will not do so. But, if they want a mate or they are distressed about something, they’ll deal with their distress like any cat: they’ll mark their territory. To a cat, marking helps keep unwanted individuals away and it creates an atmosphere of familiarity that helps them feel secure.
How Can I Tell If My Cat Has a Litter Box Problem or a Communication Problem?
It takes some investigating to find out whether your cat is urine marking or just has a litter box problem. Cats who urine mark also use their litter box to void, so urine in the litter box does not rule out marking outside the box. But urine marking deposits are typically different than eliminations in the litter box.
The following is a list of characteristics that indicate urine marking:
- Urine marks are usually left on vertical surfaces. Marking on a vertical surface is known as spraying. When spraying, a cat usually backs up to a vertical object like the side of a chair, stands with his body erect and his tail extended straight up in the air, and sprays urine.
- Urine mark deposits often have less volume than voided deposits. The amount of urine a cat sprays when he’s urine marking is usually less than the amount he would void during regular elimination in his box.
- The urine has a very strong scent. The reason cats learn so much from the marking of another cat is that a urine mark isn’t just normal urine. It also contains extra communication chemicals, which often smell bad to people.
Here are some characteristics of a cat or a household that can contribute to urine marking behavior:
- The cat is an unneutered male. Female, neutered, and spayed cats can also urine mark, but it is not as likely. As one function of urine marking is to promote reproductive availability, this is particularly useful for an unneutered male cat.
- There are multiple cats in the household. The more cats that live together, the more likely it is that they will urine mark. Homes with over 10 cats invariably have urine marking problems.
- There has been a recent change in the home. When things change, cats can become stressed. One of the ways cats deal with this stress is by marking their territory. This could be to leave a message that this place is theirs, or even to comfort themselves with their own familiar scent. Stress for cats can be caused by a whole number of things, such as someone moving in, moving out, getting another pet, remodeling a room, changing work hours, going to stay in the hospital, having a baby, even buying a new coat or bringing home groceries in an unusually large paper bag.
- There is conflict either between the cats who live in the home or between the housecat and other cats it sees outside. Cats mark in response to conflict with other cats for the same reasons they mark in response to household changes. Conflict between cats is one of the most common reasons for urine marking.