Does your cat talk? If so, what does he say when he is hungry? “Meow?” What does she say when scared? “Hiss?” When she is happy does her motor go, “Purr?” Compared to a parrot who might actually be able to speak hundreds of words, or a dog who might know a hundred words, the verbal vocabulary of a cat is limited. That isn’t to say that cat’s aren’t intelligent or that they cannot communicate.
Cat’s have a rich non-verbal vocabulary. The classic “Halloween” cat image communicates much about its attitude.. When a cat arches its back, fluffs its tail, flattens its ears, and opens it mouth, you had best beware! It is likely safer to pet a cat that displays a softer posture, with half-opened eyes and erect ears.
Cats also communicate with chemical signals. Special glands on their heads and on their paws emit an odor (a pheromone) that we mere humans cannot appreciate. When a cat smells this scent, it has a calming effect on the cat. The makers of a product called Feliway synthesized this pheromone and sell it in spray bottles and room diffusers. It really works. If you spray it inside a cat carrier before traveling, many cats will relax. Room diffusers of Feliway will usually calm cats who are anxious about strangers or new surroundings. I often install Feliway diffusers in the cat rooms at animal shelters and spray the towels I use in exam rooms.
Felines also communicate by marking with urine. Yes urine. Both female and male cats will “spray.” The more cats in the household, the more likely one of the cats will start marking on walls, rugs, couches, and beds with spritzers of urine. There is nothing more appalling to an owner than to come home and discover that the cat urinated on the pet owner’s bed or in their shoes.
What is the cat trying to say by gifting us with urine? Many owners wrongly assume their cat is spiteful for some perceived wrong. But cats have other non-verbal ways of showing anger or fear. Cats that spray are simply saying, “Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine.” The cats are claiming their territory, in a quiet, wet, and smelly fashion. The tough part for cat owners to accept is that for a cat, communicating by spraying urine is normal behavior. It is just as normal as meowing, hissing, or purring. If you punish your cat for spraying, the cat will spray more because you obviously didn’t understand the message. They will just try again and again, until they think the message has been sent.
So what can you do if you think one of your cats is spraying or marking in the house? Begin by taking your cat to your veterinarian for an exam. Let your vet first determine whether the cat has any underlying medical problems that might cause frequent urination that could be mistaken for marking behavior. Cats with kidney disease, diabetes, thyroid disease, or a urinary tract infection will sometimes urinate outside the litter box. Cats that have developed an aversion to their litter box will also start voiding in inappropriate places. (See my earlier blog on Cat Box Blues.) If there are no medical issues involved, your veterinarian can prescribe an anti-anxiety medication such as fluoxetine (generic for Prozac) to help your cat decrease its urge to communicate in this way.
For more information, visit these web sites:
Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey, Florida.
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