Reader Question: Feline Marking Behavior

Here are two reader questions that deal with marking behavior.  As you’ll see in these two letters, some cats mark with poop.  Others mark with pee.

QUESTION: My wife and I are retired and have two 3-year-old cats, Mr. Charles Dickens and Ms. Charlotte Bronte, (male & female/neutered & spayed, indoor only) adopted from the local cat rescue. Mr. Dickens is the “alpha” cat and weighs 17.5 lbs. Ms. Bronte weighs 12.5 lbs. The cats like to sleep on our bed at night and almost all the time when we are away. Otherwise, during the day they sleep in many different locations. Mr. Dickens is more outgoing with strangers and will be the first to “check them out” when we have guests. Ms. Bronte is very shy and takes a considerably longer time to investigate strangers (if at all).

During the holidays, our son visited us and was staying in our guest bedroom. Somehow our son closed the bedroom door when he went to sleep not knowing that the male cat was under the bed in his room. Unfortunately, the male cat needed to use the litter box, and instead of waking our son, he found our son’s open sports bag which was on the floor with some clothing in it and used it as a litter box. The cat immediately began a habit of defecating in the center of the master bedroom bed instead of in the litter box about once every other day. About three days ago, he defecated on the center of the guest bed as well. This occurred shortly after we had weekend guests who slept in the guest bedroom and when we thought that the bed in the master bedroom was the only target.

The bed linen and covers were laundered after each occurrence, and more recently “Zero Odor” has been sprayed in the master bedroom. We have tried a Feliway plug-in in the master bedroom, all to no avail. The only way we can prevent this behavior is to close the doors to both bedrooms during the day, opening them when we are ready to go to bed, which we would prefer not to do routinely as it makes the house seem smaller. Closed doors worked for several days in a row until I inadvertently left the master bedroom door open for not more than 10 minutes, in which time the male cat slipped into the room, repeated the act, and slipped out. The female cat is not a party to this behavior. She seems to ignore his bad manners and does not seem to be offended when he exhibits his bad behavior while she is sleeping on the master bedroom bed.

We have no idea how to begin behavior modification of Mr. Dickens. We are quite sure that his behavior is deliberate and not accidental. We love both cats and enjoy their company.

I apologize for the length of this letter. I wanted to include all the information I thought was pertinent. We hope you can help.

Sincerely, David and Janet Harden

ANSWER: Dear David and Janet:
The problem that Mr. Charles Dickens is presenting you with is one of fecal marking, otherwise known as “middening”. As you note, Mr. Dickens is a bit of an alpha cat, is outgoing, and no doubt somewhat territorial. When your son visited, I don’t think Mr. Dickens was “caught short” but rather that he was sending your son a territorial message when he eliminated in your son’s open sports bag. Shocked to the core by the apparent invasion of his territory, Mr. Dickens then began to make it very clear which areas of the house were his and his alone; specifically, he began defecating in the very center of the master bedroom bed. His message: Kilroy lives here!

I have no doubt that Mr. Dickens uses his litterbox most of the time but every so often, when his cryptic message has faded, he refreshes his mark. The fact that he defecated in the center of the guest bed right after you had guests sleep over means that he is claiming the guest bed as his territory as well.

The cause of Mr. Dickens’ middening is territorial anxiety, and I’m afraid that the only way to shut it down is by the judicious use of mood stabilizing medication, specifically fluoxetine (veterinary trade name Reconcile®). You were right to launder the bed linen and covers and spray the marked area with Zero Odor®, but that alone will not solve the problem. I have no faith at all in Feliway® and hate to say I believe you wasted your money there.

With Prozac in place, Mr. Dickens’ anxiety level reduced to a trickle, and your sheets fresh as a daisy, you will be in a position to open your doors and enjoy your whole house once again. Please be advised that this is not your fault, but rather a result of Mr. Dickens’ territorial nature. I leave you with a quote from the original Charles Dickens, who said “Accidents will occur in the best regulated families.” That appears to be what has happened in your case.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman
Director, Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts

QUESTION: Dear Doctor,
 I have been given a very sweet, 1 yr. old spayed female who has had 1 litter of kittens.  She had attached herself to a lady in a retirement community where animals were not allowed.  She had her kittens in that lady's apartment and so, just as soon as the kittens could be taken to the local SPCA, the affectionate, short-haired calico was brought to me.  She is very active, purrs readily, plays incessantly, and uses her kitty box very well.  The only problem I can't deal with is that she pees on my pillow on my bed, every chance she gets.  I've cleaned the bedding with hydrogen peroxide and soda, changed the pillows, bedding, and mattress cover.  I'm now forced to keep the bedroom door closed but the instant I turn my back, if the door is open, she runs in to pee!  I live alone and have no other pets and do enjoy her company but I am at my wits end.  What can be wrong?  How do I break her of this most offensive act?  Please help.  I really want to keep her and I'd love to be able to leave the bedroom door open, especially in the middle of the night when I need to pee.
Patty Meeko

ANSWER: Dear Patty,
Since your one year old spayed female calico regularly uses her litter box for routine elimination, I will assume that she finds the latrine arrangement you have provided satisfactory.  In that case, the most likely explanation for her “pillow peeing” is marking behavior.  Some cats deposit a large volume of urine on their owner’s personal items if the cat is experiencing some discontent with its relationship with the owner.  Is there any reason your cat may be trying to send you a not-so-subtle message of her discontent by urinating on your pillow and potentially other objects that contain your scent?  Some cats, who are extremely attached to their owners, urinate on owner’s personal belongings as a reaction to separation anxiety or an upset in their environment.   However, you do not describe any association with her urinating on your pillow and any particular stressor, such as you giving less attention, travelling or having guests in your home.  In fact she seems to run out of habit  into your bedroom any chance she gets.  If you close her out of the bedroom at night depending on her motivation this may actually contribute to the problem.  Finally, it is possible this is a habit she developed while pregnant and living in the retirement community.  She may have had designs on delivering her kittens on the lady’s bed and chose to mark it as her territory.  Now she has retained this behavior and has carried it over to your home.  It’s really anyone’s guess with the limited information that is available.

Whatever her motivation, I agree we need to change her ways! First, it is essential to deodorize soiled locations using an enzymatic or bacterial odor neutralizer specifically prepared to break down urine.  Zero Odor and Anti-IckyPoo, both available from the Internet, are two products that I have found to be effective.  Hydrogen peroxide and soda are ineffective at eliminating urine odors. If urine has seeped into your mattress and pillows, you will need to thoroughly cleanse the pillow and mattress as well.  If your pillows and bed smell like urine, she will continue to view it as a scent post.  

She may benefit from more mental and physical stimulation.  Enriching her environment with a variety of toys, including food stuffed toys and perches may help.  She sounds very intelligent and physically active so scheduling daily play and training sessions will help her be more content.  You might consider clicker training to teach tricks and train her to negotiate an agility (obstacle) course.

You should continue to deny her access to your bedroom when you are not present while you work on cleaning the area and breaking her habit.  If it is simply a habit she has developed following birthing her litter of kittens, it will extinguish over time if she is not given the opportunity to continue to soil your pillow.  If she is marking your pillow because she is experiencing some stress, then identifying and addressing the stressor will be necessary to eliminate this behavior.  You may find it helpful to schedule a consultation with a qualified animal behaviorist to help you get to the root of this problem and develop a detailed treatment program.

Good luck with her.  She sounds like a fantastic feline friend with the exception of this one issue – Put on your detective hat and with guidance from an appropriate professional you will be able to discern her underlying motivation and redirect her behavior.

Alice Moon-Fanelli PhD, CAAB
Animal Behavior Consultations, LLC
Brooklyn Veterinary Hospital