There are thirty one species of cats occupying every type of geographical environment on the planet except the Poles and every individual member of those thirty one species is territorial. It’s built in. Whether in the jungles or deserts, along rivers, forests or the Himalayan mountains, all cats define, survey, maintain and explore a fairly specific area which they regard as their territory.
This does not mean that cats don’t tolerate other cats within their territories. They do, depending on who, and often territories overlap, to the benefit of all concerned. A female cat in the wild, a lion say, will be aware of a trespassing male lion but this encroachment is often beneficial both for mating purposes and at times for some level of enhanced protection against other predators. Even two male lions may tolerate overlapping domains and they use their various behaviors, like marking, to communicate with one another, for example letting the other know when they were last in this spot and something about what they’ve been eating. But each cat knows his territory and respects the boundaries and time zones to ensure that unwanted encounters with undesirable consequences don’t occur.
Even indoor, single housecats with no other cats in the home are territorial. Even when there are no other cats even outside of the house, a cat will define and mark his territory inside because cats have been doing that for pretty close to forever. It’s hard-wired. And sometimes this behavior gets our housecats into trouble, but it doesn’t have to.
All cats will mark their territory and places and items within their territory with their scent glands by rubbing. This is normal, natural and harmless. The trouble comes for housecats when they also scratch, which is also a form of marking, and they are in serious trouble when they spray. But why do they do this?
We (this author, at least) do not take the view that cats rub or scratch to leave their scent but rather cats rub and scratch and one of the consequences is that they leave their scent. These activities have other consequences too. Rubbing seems to be quite satisfying to a cat. The pressure against the cheeks where a set of the scent glands are located seems to be pleasurable as they push against any solid thing and reaffirm that this is within their domain.
Scratching too has other consequences besides leaving scent from their paw pads. It makes the cat feel good, flexing his toes, stripping old nail, stretching, relieving tension and just allowing him to experience his catness. Watch a cat scratch and it’s clear he is enjoying it. But how many cat owners have not found themselves deeply regretting this incorrigible characteristic their much beloved feline friends exhibit as they proceed to demolish the furniture? Can this destruction be stopped? Yes. But whatever you do, do not have him declawed. It is an evil practice equivalent to having the first digit of each finger on your hand cut off.
Your cat will scratch. Has to, is going to, no question, but on what? This is one area we have some say in because we can, and most of us do, provide scratching alternatives to the furniture. Will he use the scratching posts you’ve put around the house? Probably. Exclusively? Maybe, it depends upon how you go about it. Cat behaviorist, Ms. Johnson-Bennett has many extremely useful tips concerning scratching and how to get your cat to stop using furniture. One suggestion is to put the scratching post near where your cat has been using the furniture, as well as where they like to spend time. She says: “When a cat needs to scratch he’ll look for the closest object that meets his needs.”
Not just any scratching posts though. Those nice looking softly carpeted posts are far less appealing to your cat than your upholstered furniture. Johnson-Bennett quite definitively advises us to get something covered with sisal. It’s rough, durable and cats like it. Meaning, they’ll use it, to the survival of your furniture. Ms. Johnson-Bennett has a wealth of useful tips and information to help us in this area in her book “Cat Wise” and I strongly recommend getting it. It is invaluable in helping with all aspects of having cats in your life.
Should you squirt your cat when he scratches furniture? Yes, if you want him to become frustrated, distrustful of you, scratch when you’re not there or have his behavior escalate to something worse, like spraying. Again, we refer to Ms. Johnson-Bennett: “Punishment doesn’t work. It’s important to understand that regardless of how unwanted the behavior is in your eyes, it has a purpose for the cat.”
But what about high-intensity scent marking such as spraying? If this is occurring, your cat isn’t the problem, your cat has a problem and, to him at least, a serious one. If it is a new behavior, what changed? Something, for sure. A rearrangement in the house? The introduction of a new family member or a new pet? Maybe a new cat outside that your cat has become aware of? Remember, spraying is a powerful way of marking territory and making a strong statement about how that particular cat feels about this particular place – ‘it’s mine so beware!’ Cats get scared. Anything that threatens them or their dominance within whatever they regard as their territory will evoke a strong response and spraying is one of the strongest the cat has in his arsenal.
Spraying is particularly distressful to us. It smells awfully and instantly we think he will ruin the whole house but it is important to understand that the problem is that the cat has a problem and we need to discover what it is. Once calmed and secure he will not continue spraying but will simply continue his harmless and even delightful ways of saying to the world, “I own this.”