How I Treat: Urine Spraying in Cats
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2013
Sarah Heath, BVSc, DECAWBM (BM), CCAB, MRCVS
Behavioural Referrals Veterinary Practice, Upton, Chester, UK
Indoor urine marking is a classic example of normal feline behaviour which is out of context and therefore considered to be inappropriate by owners. In its natural context urine marks are used as a means of communication and cats use them in order to distribute their own scent and not to cover odours from other cats. The urine message is directed toward other cats, with the purpose of avoiding unnecessary encounters and potential confrontation, but is also directed toward the perpetrator themselves with the purpose of increasing a sense of security and belonging. Although a cat will smell the urine mark of another cat there is no fearful or intimidative response and it will sniff at the scented post and possibly flehmen and then walk on having noted the information. Exactly what information is conveyed by urine marks remains unclear, but it has been noted that urine is not only sniffed but can also induce a flehmen response, although the use of flehmen varies from cat to cat and appears to be most common towards the scent mark of a strange male. The use of flehmen suggests the detection of pheromonal information within the mark and therefore social communication appears to be an important part of the message.
Within feline social groups there are communual odours which are made up of the scents of all of the individual members of that group and for the domestic pet cat its social odour profile will include the scent of the human members of that group together with the scent of the inanimate objects within that household. For the more sensitive individuals any disruption of that odour can be very challenging and hence introduction of new family members, such as babies or new boyfriends, and introduction of new furniture can lead to outbursts of spraying behaviour within the home. In this context it appears that the deposition of urine enables the cat to surround itself with its own scent and thereby increase its feeling of confidence. It is also thought that scent marking is used by the cat to associate with the smell of the humans and indeed the other animals in their social group. The odour of a scent mark changes with age due to a combination of differential evaporation of volatiles and the production of new smells by microorganisms and this is very important in the perpetuation of an indoor spraying problem. As the mark decays and its odour changes so the cat is induced to go back to the mark and top it up and most owners will comment that the cat has regular places within the home where it sprays repeatedly.
In many conditions the symptoms show similarities whilst the underlying causes are very different and require different treatments. This is true for urine marking and it would appear that there are two distinct forms of urine marking. It has been shown that male cats will sniff urine from in oestrus females for longer than urine of anoestrus females and although males generally spend longer investigating urine sprays than females, a female that is in oestrus will pay great attention to the sprayed urine of males especially if they are strangers. Such spraying behaviour associated with sexual activity is both normal and transient and is often identified by the presence of other sexual behaviours such as characteristic male and female vocalisation. The other type of urine marking is given various terms such as anxiety related or reactional urine marking and for most domestic cat owners, whose pets are neutered at a pre-pubertal age, this is the type that is most often encountered.
Reactional marking can occur with any cat, male or female, neutered or entire. It is a reaction to something that has occurred, or is anticipated, within its territory and which poses a possible challenge to the cat’s security. The problem may resolve when the cause is removed or accepted by the cat. The main differences from sexual marking are the absence of other sexual behaviours such as vocalisation and the more widespread area in which marks are deposited. Causes of reactional marking are many and varied but are all events in the cat’s environment (i.e., alterations to core territory) to which it is reacting: for example introduction of a new item (furniture, carpet, person or animal), reorganisation of existing items (including redecoration), or introduction to a new environment (temporary or permanent). Urine marking is common in multi cat households, and social stress is an important factor in these cases.
Preventing Indoor Marking
Considering the Importance of Core Territory
Feline territory is divided in a central core area which is surrounded by a home range and then leads into a much larger hunting range. The core area is where the cats eat, sleep and play and it represents the safe zone of the territory. It is only occupied by cats from the same social grouping and therefore marking behaviour is unnecessary within this part of the territory. In order to prevent the onset of indoor marking it is therefore necessary to establish the home as a core territory and to minimise any factors which could jeopardise that status.
Provision of suitable eating, sleeping and playing opportunities will be key to establishing a core territory and this should be done by taking natural feline behaviour into consideration. Each cat within the household will need its own feeding station, since eating is not a social behaviour in a feline context. Sleeping opportunities will be enhanced by the provision of elevated resting places which offer the opportunity to rest in seclusion and the use of cat aerobic centres which offer a combination of scratching posts, observation platforms and resting hammocks and tunnels can be very useful. Offering cats the opportunity to play within the core territory is important on many levels. Most owners find it very easy to play with young kittens on a regular basis but it is important to remember that play needs to continue throughout life and should provide a suitable outlet for predatory skills.
In addition to providing a designated core territory which offers security and therefore decreases the potential for developing indoor urine marking it is also important to ensure that this core is not threatened by social intrusion from outside or by incompatibility within the household.
Addressing Social Tension in the Feline Neighbourhood
Cat flaps can be a very useful invention from a human perspective and offer the cat freedom of access to the outside world. However, they can also present a potential source of intrusion and it is therefore advisable to install devices which offer the maximum security. Modern microchip operated flaps probably offer the best level of protection against intrusion from neighbouring cats, although very persistent individuals can find a way to break in through most cat flaps that are on the market! Another way of minimising perceived threat from neighbouring cats is to develop a time share system for the feline neighbours but this obviously relies on human co-operation which is not always forthcoming. In addition to actual invasion of the core territory cats are also very susceptible to the negative effects of visual invasion and ensuring that the core territory is visually secure is another way of reducing the risk of indoor marking. Remember to place important resources such as food and water stations and latrines away from windows or patio doors and arrange feline resting places within the home so that they are not vulnerable to visual invasion from cats outside.
Addressing Social Tension at Home
Social threat is not only a risk from cats in the outdoor environment and prevention of indoor urine marking also relies on the suitable selection of feline housemates, taking into consideration the natural basis of social groupings. Cats will naturally form social relationships with siblings and therefore littermates make good potential household companions. In contrast unrelated individuals have less natural basis for forming successful social relationships and individuals of significantly differing ages, for example those under 2–3 years of age and those over that limit, can also struggle to form successful relationships due to their differing social behaviour as a result of the natural maturation process. If the household consists of more than one natural social grouping of cats it will be essential to establish one core territory per social group in order to prevent the necessity for marking behaviour within the home. This can pose a significant challenge to owners of large number of cats in relatively small houses and should be considered before adding more cats into an already established feline household.
Treating Reactional Indoor Marking
There are three components of the approach to treating indoor urine marking if it occurs. Namely:
1. Breaking the habit
2. Removing the need
3. Ceasing all punishment
1. Breaking the Habit
Cleaning the soiled areas effectively is vitally important. As cat urine deposits decay there is a natural drive to top up the marks in order to keep the signal fresh and this habitual topping up is a significant factor in the maintenance of indoor urine marking problems. There are plenty of products on the market, but beware of those that contain ammonia or chlorine. Certainly to the human nose these products smell clean, but to the cat they smell like urine and can add to the problems rather than help. The most effective cleaning regime is to scrub the area with a 10% warm solution of a biological washing powder (to remove the protein component of the deposit) and, after rinsing it and leaving it to dry, spray the area with surgical spirit (to remove the fat component). It is then important to ensure that the area is completely dry before allowing the cat access once again.
The use of deterrents is commonly advocated and people have described very elaborate contraptions for this purpose. However these methods are based on the principle of making it uncomfortable or unpleasant to engage in marking behaviour and they rely on the induction of negative emotional state, such as fear, in the cat in order to suppress the behaviour. Any method that induces a negative emotional state will decrease the cat’s perception of safety and security and is therefore contraindicated in the treatment of urine marking behaviour. While it is true that such techniques can lead to a rapid cessation of the behaviour in the location where the aversive deterrent is applied it should be remembered that in many cases the cat simply moves its marking behaviour to less obvious and less accessible locations and in others the cat internalises its negative emotion and may start to exhibit other, potentially more detrimental, behavioural signs, such as over grooming or inter-cat aggression. The use of aversive deterrents is therefore not to be recommended.
2. Removing the Need
Address Issue of Territory Security
Increasing home security by redefining the area as a core territory will help to remove the need to spray. Core territories are defined by the actions of eating, sleeping and playing and therefore increasing the provision of these three activities will help to remove the need for indoor marking. Feeding more frequent, but smaller meals, providing predatory play opportunities using puzzle feeders and fishing rod style toys and increasing the availability of elevated resting places will all help to decrease insecurity and increase feline confidence. Ensuring that the territory is physically secure by installing a microchip operated cat flap and decreasing visual vulnerability within the core territory, by moving key resources away from windows and even considering temporary obscuring of windows and patio doors, are also going to be important measures. Where the source of stress is not identified and the cat is showing signs of severe lack of confidence restriction of access in the household to a smaller number of rooms, or in some cases even one room, in order to decrease the size of the cat’s defendable territory can help.
Consider Drug Support
Use of drug support is sometimes needed in cases of indoor marking. When it is employed it is important that it is seen as an adjunct to behavioural therapy and not a substitute for it. Drugs such as the tricyclic antidepressants, for example Clomipramine, or the SSRIs, such as Fluoxetine, can be used on a short term basis to give a more rapid cessation of the behaviour than can be achieved with behavioural therapy alone. This is good for owner compliance but also serves to break the habit of indoor marking. The medication is being used to reduce anxiety and improve the cat’s positive emotional balance so that it is more acceptable to a change of perception of the home as a safe and secure core territory.
Identify Triggers and Remove
Ideally any trigger for marking behaviour should be identified and if possible removed. Extensive history taking will necessary to identify these triggers and in all too many cases it is either not possible to identify the source of conflict or not possible to remove it once it has been identified.
Use Pheromone Therapy
The product Feliway, which is a synthetic analogue of the F3 fraction of the feline facial “pheromone,” has given very promising results through its effect of enhancing the perception of the home as safe and secure environment. Its availability as a diffuser device has increased the level of success and made it a very important tool in the treatment of indoor marking problems in cats.
3. Ceasing All Punishment
The final rule when dealing with spraying cats is to never punish. Any interaction which induces a negative emotional state in the cat is going to decrease its perception of safety and increase the risk of marking behaviour occurring. The use of deterrents has been mentioned earlier in relation to methods that have been advocated to break the habit of indoor marking. It is important to cease the use of these deterrents and of any direct punishment since, even if the cat is caught in the act, the chances are that inducing negative emotion in the cat will create more problems than it cures. At worst punishment can result in a cat that sprays more frequently, but in less detectable places, and it can totally destroy the cat owner partnership and remove any trust, so beware.
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