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Cat Marking Explained

Your cat marks everything that it likes, from toys to walls to you. But what''s going through its br...

Cats use a variety of methods to mark people, things and territory with their scent. Spraying and scratching are two such scent-marking ways that are the most difficult for pet owners to tolerate. In contrast, other cat marking behaviors are endearing. For example, cats engage in head-“bunting” -- butting a person with the head -- or rubbing up against someone’s hand with their cheeks to release scents that mark you as their loved ones.

Glands and Plans
Cats have glands on certain parts of the body that explain many of these marking behaviors. These glands can secrete a subtle scent emanating from chemicals that scientists call pheromones. Pheromones are essential to cat communication. They allow felines to attract mates, define territories, promote a sense of comfort and let other cats know who and where they are. “It’s like leaving a calling card,” says Pamela Johnson-Bennett, a certified animal behavior consultant (CABC).

Cats secrete the pheromones from glands located in a variety of locations on their bodies. Here’s a guide to the locations and how those explain certain cat behaviors:

  • Forehead and cheeks The scent glands located on the forehead and cheeks are often used to promote calming behaviors that we see as very loving and friendly. Such behaviors may include head-bunting and cheek-rubbing.

  • Paw bottoms When your cat scratches, be it on the arm of a sofa or on a scratching post, it is not only leaving a physical mark, but also an olfactory one.

  • In the urine stream Cat urine contains pheromones too. Urine spraying by cats should not be confused with urination. Spraying is done on walls, windows, furniture and other objects. After a cat sniffs the target, it turns around, lifts its tail, and sprays urine at the target.

Why They Do It
Different types of marking behaviors are often prompted by very different motivations on the part of our furry friends. Johnson-Bennett, also author of the book Starting from Scratch (Penguin 2007), has a general rule of thumb: the markings from the front of the cat are most often “friendly” behaviors, while the scent markings coming from the rear are often “unfriendly.” Here is what your cat may be trying to communicate:

  • Marking you -- or another pet -- as “Mine!” When cats head-bunt or rub cheeks on humans, it is often to mark you as their own. They will also mark a fellow cat this way. “If two cats know each other and are friendly, they will engage in scent exchange. It helps the colony to have one familiar scent,” says Johnson-Bennett.

  • Communicate that they live there Scratching is a natural cat impulse and activity. It is one method of communicating that they live there. Scratching in a new location may be prompted by change, including a move or the purchase of new furniture. Cats are comforted when surrounded by their own scent in a room, such as on a couch or on the carpet.

  • Telling others to “Keep out!” Spraying is often used to mark territory or to communicate boundaries. It may often be prompted indoors by a change in environment, such as moving to a new home. Or it may be a reaction to a new member of the household, be it a baby, a new husband or a new pet.

Keep a Positive Spin on Marking

Since marking is a natural cat behavior, remember that you can take steps to keep your pet’s instincts positive.

  • Rub your cat’s cheeks and head. This has a very calming and reassuring effect on your cat.

  • Rub those “friendly” glands on the head and cheeks with a dry wash cloth and spread the scent on new furnishings. This could help to deter scratching behavior.

  • Offer your pet places to scratch, such as stable vertical scratching posts and horizontal posts as well.

  • If your cat has sprayed in certain areas, wash those with an enzyme-based cleaner that removes the odor, says certified cat behavioral consultant Marilyn Krieger. Even if you address the underlying cause that prompted the spraying, your cat may return to spray in an area if it still detects its own scent.



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