Break out of Frames

MacKenzie Look-alike Feral Cat Behavior -
Cat Territorial Markings

By Jack Carter

In the fourth of my articles on feral cat behaviour, we'll examine the territorial marking behaviors of cats.


Cat Territorial Markings

In my study of Ferals, I am often placed in the position of trying to track and follow feral cat colony members, and attempting to order the members by rank. To do this, I have found it helpful to understand cat territorial they mark their territory, why, where, and what these various marking attempt to convey to other cats. The following tries to explain some of this behaviour, and in the process help explain why our "house lions" try to tear up our furniture!

Territorial Markings Methods

Cats tend to use four methods to mark their territories. Scratching of upright objects, such as tree trunks, urine spraying, gland markings (facial) and fecal markings. The act of marking and reading the markings of other ferals takes a good deal of their non-food gathering and play time. Ferals, upon awakening, generally start by scratching upright object soon after waking...a tendency we see in our house cats when they wake...this is the time they go to work on our sofas. Understanding why cats mark their areas as they do, can help us limit this behaviour in our own cats, while preserving their need to mark.

Tree Marking

Tree marking tends to happen close to the nest, and it is my belief that this is a dual mode activity. The act of stretching and clawing an up-right object such as a tree trunk acts to both mark the tree as "theirs" and as just plain ol' stretching. This is why we see this activity mainly right after the cat awakes.

These marks, while easy to find on our sofas at home, can be very hard to see in the field. Areas to look for are any up-right object, such as a tree trunk, close to the nesting area or feeding station. Look about "shin" high, if you are standing next to the tree. Indications are bark that looks as if it has been smoothed over, and small, often hard to see scratch marks. These are generally found in one area of the trunk only..not all around the tree. I often find it easier to "feel" for these markings, as it will feel like a depression or low area in the bark. The easiest way to start to notice these marks are to watch ferals in the field, and when you observe them tree marking, you can then go to the tree and see what these marks look like. Return to this tree every day or so to get an idea how these marks "age". This activity tells other cats information about the cat that made the markings. Information that other cats gather from these marks include the age and general size of the animal that made the mark. This information is gathered by the location on the trunk that the marks are made...higher up on the tree tends to point to an older larger cat. This marking is done by both male and female cats.

Urine Spraying

"This is mine" is what they would write if they could, but seeing as sharping a pencil is a hard thing to do with claws, urine marking, for a cat, is the next best thing. Most cat owners, at one time or the other, have been bothered by this behaviour. Some claim that this is the primary reason for cats being dropped off at shelters; this and scratching. Understanding this behaviour is important in keeping cats and humans happy together under one roof. The musky odor of cat urine marking is unmistakable.

While females also do this, for the most part, I have found that this is a male trait more so than other marking methods. For a male, urine markings are used to define the boundaries of their territory. The reading of these markings are important for other cats in order to permit the sharing of territory. In a large feral cat colony, territory is "shared" with other ferals in the colony and nearby rogue males. Without territorial marking, fights would break out more often. Cats will often "remark" their territory when they feel threatened or frightened. We see this effect when our house cats are stressedl as the stress level mounts, we tend to see more spraying behavior in our house cats. This stress can take the form of the addition of another cat to the household, or a move to another house or apartment. Understanding this, we can allow our house cats to adjust slowly to the new cat or location, thus cutting down this behavoiur. Neutering of males also tends to limit this activity. It will NOT stop it in all (or most cats for that matter) but can help to limit it. I have found that early neutered cats tend not to mark are readily as older neutered cats.

As these marks are odor based, locating them in the field can be next to impossible unless you happen upon a marked area soon after the cat has marked, and your sense of smell is keen. While these can be hard for humans to locate, with a cats' sense of smell, these markings will tend to define a rather large area.

Gland Marking (Face rubbing)

Cats mark items "owned" by glandular scent marks made by rubbing the side of their heads aginst the item to be marked. This is readily seen in our house cats. This activity is akin to "head butting", head butting denotes affection for the item (normally another cat or human), and is generally never seen performed on "items", while gland marking is used to denote ownership, and is seen performed on both items, such as the side of a cabinet, as well as on people and other animals. Head butting has been observed to only be done to other living animals, and not to items.

These are odor markngs, and as such are impossible for humans to find and reconize without seeing the animal perform the marking. A very affectional cat will often spend a good deal of time "marking" their owners as "theirs". This activity is not seen in young cats untill generally their second or third month of age.

Fecal Droppings

While we tend to think of cats using their litter boxes and fastidiously burying their feces, in the wild fecal markings are often used as a sign of dominance in feral cat colonies. We can sometimes see this in our house cats when rank has been disturbed by the addition of another cat into the household.

In the wild, cats will carefully cover their fecal dropping, as a cats' digestive systems are very quick, protien materal is often availiable in their droppings, and other animals find this a source of the act of covering their droppings is a safety measure to keep unwanted animals from finding them. If you have ever observed your house cat "go crazy" after using their litter pans, and run through the house, you can begin to understand this behaviour. The house cat is attempting to "get away" from the source of odor and attraction to other animals. So, with this in mind, we can see how litter can be used by cats for marking. By not covering their dropping, the cat is in effect saying "Watch out, I'm tough enough that I think I'm top cat, and I don't NEED to cover my odor".

This article is printed here with the author's permission. Contact Jack Carter at:

Why Do Cats Sniff Butts? The Day in a Feral Cat's Life Stalking a Mouse . . . Territorial Marking




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