Cats' urine marking has social function

February 2011 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA

Janet sniffs cautiously as she walks into her living room and then sighs, the smell of ammonia filling her nose. Janet has become embarrassed to have company lately, afraid that her air freshener will not cover the urine odor that has become apparent in her home. Although frustrated, Janet smiles as her two cats romp together on the floor. "I just don't know what else to do," Janet says. "I have two litter boxes which I keep very clean, I scrub the soiled area each time I find a spot, and I've tried different brands of litter, but I am still finding urine spots all over my house!"

Failure to use the litter box is one of the most common behavior problems among cats. Many cats are relinquished to animal shelters each year because their owners can no longer contend with the property destruction (and offensive odor) that results from feline urine on their carpets, furniture, clothing, or floorboards. 

The first step toward treating feline house soiling involves distinguishing between urine marking and other house soiling. Urine marking will be discussed here and other causes for feline house soiling will be discussed in next month's Pet Peeves column. 

Urine marking often can be distinguished visually by its location on vertical objects such as drapes, chair legs, and walls. If cats are observed urinating, marking also can be distinguished by their posture, which often involves the cat backing up toward a wall or other vertical surface, with tail raised high in a "question mark" position. Sometimes the tail is twitching as urine is deposited directly onto the vertical surface. 

This behavior has a communicative function among many species of the animal kingdom. Often directed at the edge of a territory, urine marking leaves an olfactory message to others to stay away. Among domestic cats, urine marking is often an attempt to send a territorial message to other cats, dogs, or yard-invading species (e.g., raccoons, possums). 

In multicat households, an understanding of the social dynamics between the cats is essential to understanding urine-marking problems. Cats employ complex behavioral strategies designed to control access to valuable areas in the house, such as eating and drinking stations, and resting and litter areas. Some cats begin urinating outside of the box to avoid confrontation with a dominating cat in the house. If there is intercat aggression or tension in the household, this often must be addressed before the urination issues can be solved.

In single cat households, urine marking also can be triggered by environmental changes such as new family members or guests, new furniture, or household renovations. New items in the house bring novel odors with them, and some cats are compelled to mark these items with their signature urine scent.

Animal behaviorists recommend keeping one litter box for each cat in the household plus one extra. Owners should keep these boxes clean and avoid scented litter, which can be noxious to cats and can compel them to attempt to overpower that smell with their own. Boxes should be located in areas that allow privacy and easy access, uninhibited by family dogs, heavy foot traffic, or other impediments. 

Like Janet, many families have implemented these basic strategies, but continue to find new spots of cat urine around their home (either by smell or with the aid of a black light, which illuminates cat urine). These owners should contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist for assistance.