An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Pungent Scents of Comfort. Urine Marking #1: An Introduction

Dear Readers, Recently I've been contacted by two feline pairs (Moby and Mick; and Bear and his sister, Bailey) about similar problems. In each case, one of the pair has suddenly started a pee fest. By pee fest I mean urine marking outside the box -- either in the form of spray against vertical surfaces like walls and furnishings, or puddles against horizontal ones like bed comforters and floors. The source of the problem in both cases seems to be one of two things: the relationship between the cats in the household and/or the presence of other cats outside. So over the next few weeks, I'm going to do a series about this kind of marking and these kinds of causes.

Here is my plan. I'll start with this entry on urine marking in general:
- what it is,
- its causes,
- what distinguishes it from failure to use the litterbox, and
- why urine testing is often advised.

In my next entry on this subject, I'll discuss the biggest cause of marking: territorial threat. And then I'll take each type of territorial threat and look, in detail, at possible solutions. Another entry will be devoted to cleaning urine marks which is of no interest to any of you whatsoever, but is likely to find favour with your purrsons. I'm also looking at the possibility of doing a piece each on urine sampling and testing, and on medications used to deal with marking. And finally, I'll show you how to develop an action plan should you need one.

Some of you may wonder why I'll be spending so much time on this topic. Sure I could briefly hit on the main points in just one entry, but I sense that some of you will be showing these entries to your purrsons. And purrsons require a lot of detail because they get off track very easily.

So here goes!


What It Looks Like: You back up to the object of choice, raise your tail which will start to twitch, and spew forth pungent cascades of urine, leaving your mark about eight inches (20 cm) from the floor. Yes, that IS spraying but there are other forms of marking - like the puddle and I've already mentioned what urine marking looks like (horizontal and vertical).

What It Is

It is a form of communication. As members of the superior species, we don't waste out breath communicating with sound except in special circumstances (like dealing with kittens, fighting, mating, and getting the attention of thick-headed humans). We don't have to talk because we understand body language very well. We pay a great deal of attention to ear and whisker position, body posture and tail signalling amongst colleagues to let us know what mood they are in and whether or not they are up to no good. And we have scent - in our cheeks, paws, anus and through our waste products, that can speak volumes. And when we use urine for marking (as opposed to using it just to eliminate waste) we make it in a particular pungent form.

For the most part, humans don't care what we communicate to each other or how. But when it comes to scratching their possessions or depositing our waste outside the litterbox, they can fly off the handle. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, they don't appreciate the scratched notices we post on the sofa to tell other cats of our presence (regardless of whether or not we are the sole cat in the house). And they don't seem to find cascades of pungent urine at all useful, even though many of them like to waft through scents of their choosing, be they room fresheners or perfumes. Who said life is fair?

You may be surprised to know that most humans are ignorant about our hierarchy of marking. When we are comfortable, we mark with our cheeks (rubbing some of the 30 or so different pheromones from them onto the item or purrson in question) to help us incorporate items into our territory and orient ourselves. You'd think humans would understand this because the first thing they tend to do to a new space they occupy is to spread some of their own stuff around to make it feel like home. If that isn't sufficient we mark by scratching, depositing scent from our paw pads along with visual cues from our nails, largely to tell other cats of our presence; the fact that we may be an only cat and always kept indoors makes no difference - it's some of the wild in us, left over from our ancestors. And if things are getting out of hand (or should I say, paw), we use urine instead. Since scent decays over time, we keep marking the same spot over and over again, to refresh it and make it feel like home.

Why We Do It

If you live with observant purrsons, they will soon figure out the cause of your marking - even if they don't know what to do about it. But just in case you have the misfortune to reside with a particularly unanalytical human, I will clearly list the causes.

Many of us begin our pee fests when we reach sexual maturity (around six months of age). At this point, the solution is simple: Go to the vet and have your 'parts' removed. But that doesn't mean we won't urine mark if the need arises later.

Some of us urine mark because of our catsonality: We tend to either be hyper-macho and revel in a victory spray, or we are anxious and fragile and need the comfort of our own scent when something is amiss. Appropriate solutions depend on your catsonality. Hyper-macho may need another acceptable outlet (though usually this kind of sprayer is dealing with territorial threat, as outlined below). And the fragile cat needs measures to ensure a sense of comfort; and again these usually relate to solving territorial threat as outlined below. If you tend to be the fragile type, that is, sensitive to change and somewhat anxious, then choose to live with a smart, observant purrson who cares enough to help you build your confidence and take preventative measures where possible. (This is the subject of another blog entry though not part of this series).

Territorial Threat: This is an area many purrsons just don't understand fully no matter how many times I harp on the subject: Territory is our most important possession - so much so that if we feel threatened we may not eat or engage in sexual activity (if intact) while feeling threatened. As domestic cats, our turf includes a large area (ranging from around 1/10 of an acre - in American -  for a spayed female to many acres for intact males). We can adapt to small spaces (and many of us have to), as long as there are enough resources (food, water, safe sleeping areas, etc.) available. In the wild, each cat's territory is sufficient to support himself and no other which is why none of us tends to take kindly to strangers. It's one thing to share your food because you have so much; but quite another to end up starving because someone else raided your pantry.

The core territory is where we sleep and eat. We may have several such spots. We also deposit waste(everyone has to toilet) usually at our territorial edges. We hunt in our territory. Our key places are connected by scent trails laid down by our paw pads and reinforced by other marks (such as cheek rubs against corners or key pieces of furniture that jut out). And these are refreshed as needed.

Yes, we can share territory if resources are abundant and the other cat is not a threat.

Yes, we can time-share territory (outdoors, for example), meaning that one of us uses a particular area at a particular time and another uses that same area at a different time.

Now let's move on to the threats:

Territorial Threat #1: Changes in the number OR kind of territorial personnel. Examples - New family member (human or pet), either permanent or temporary (like the so-called visitor or weekend guest), either inside or outside (such as a strange cat at the window). This includes strange or unfamiliar scents brought into the house, usually on shoes or clothing (even if the being responsible for them is not about - because as any cat knows, we normally meet new beings through scents first rather than sight). This also includes crowding: No matter how many food bowls, cat trees and litterboxes about, there is a point in any cat's life where the addition of one more cat is just one too many. What that number is varies with the cat, the number of companions already there and the overall living arrangements.

Territorial Threat #2: Changes in territorial resources because of changes in furniture or its arrangement, moving to a new home, or renovation or remodelling.

Territorial Threat #3: Changes in the timing of the use of our territory for example, by others with whom we live; humans call this scheduling or changes in routine.

Territorial Threat #4: Changes in our relationships with others in the home (often other non-human companions). Most importantly, something happens such that our relationship with that being becomes more tense.

And lest you show this tract to your someone who reacts by saying, "But my cat does it out of spite!" or "Fluffy is just too lazy to use the box!" or some such thing - do NOT believe it. There are reasons for marking (as listed above) and none of them have to do with getting revenge, misbehaving, low levels of energy or intellect, or a desire to create havoc or extra cleaning for our human companions. Instead, the usual culprit is THREAT!

Is It Marking or Failure to Use the Litterbox?

There is a lot of misinformation going around, so the concerned purrson who consults others (even those others who should know better) is often told: if the urine goes against a vertical wall it is spraying (marking) and if not, it in inappropriate elimination (failure to use the litterbox). Take this with a grain of salt. Because a cat who is not confident, may not spray; instead he'll drop a load of urine on the bed, or a pile of laundry, or in someone's shoes, or on the mat at the front door. That's not 'failure to use the litterbox', it's marking. And just to make matters more confusing, many cats mark in their litterboxes as well - witness the one who just has to pee in the box right after it has been thoroughly cleaned, even if he just used it a few minutes ago. So not surprisingly, many humans can't figure out if we are not using the box because we are marking or because there is something wrong with the box.

Here are the reasons for not using the box:

Reason #1: Not using the box because you are ill. The most common medical cause on not using the box is a urinary tract infection and the most dangerous of those is LUTD (lower urinary tract disease) also known as crystals. Yep, some of us make crystals with our pee and especially in males these can block the urethra causing wastes to recirculate in the body. Crystals can be deadly and this kind of poisoning works fast. The usual scenario (in the household that is not observant about litterbox habits) is that you stop using the box, become more lethargic, curl up and scream in pain if anyone tries to touch you and then they figure they should probably take you to the vet. At that point, it is an emergency. If you are male, a catheter is inserted into your most private of parts and you are given fluids by intravenous to flush your system out. You stay at the hospital for several days; and upon release you are put on a special food that you must stay on for the rest of your life (because your chemistry is such that unless you have this specially balanced food, you will manufacture those crystals again). Cystitis is another type of infection that is painful, can be accompanied by blood in your urine turning it either pink or red, and results in you having to pee very small amounts very frequently, often while crying out. It can be so painful that you will search for another place to toilet (associating the pain with the box); cool surfaces like sinks, tubs and counters are often locations of choice. Any female purrson who has had cystitis knows that this is a condition you wouldn't even wish on your worst enemy (like that smark alec tortie who lives down the alley). There are other conditions that could turn you off the box (like kidney disease or diabetes which are likely to result in you flooding the box with heavy urine output). Medical problems are the reason that vets and behaviourists urge humans to bring their cats in for urine testing if there are problems with using the box.

Reason #2: There is something wrong with the box (its location, size, cleanliness, the kind of litter used) or someone is preventing you from using it in comfort (like the family dog who snacks on cat stools and can't wait for a fresh serving). And yes, I can see that another blog entry is needed just on failure-to-use-the-box causes and solutions -- at some other time.

About Urine Testing - for Marking (rather than for failure to use the box)

I already gave a spiel on the importance of urine testing under Reason #1; but that relates to failure to use the box. However if you are a cat who is spraying and your purrson calls the vet to ask for urine testing, staff may say it's not an issue because you are using the box. Don't believe it. About 40% of cats who spray have a urinary infection. So it is a good idea for the sprayer's urine to be tested just to be on the safe side. Repeat after me: Urine testing -- it's a good thing!