Scent, security, and stress

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A happy Cecilia!

Does your cat get anxious and hide when people come over? Does your cat pee or scratch on the carpet? These behaviors (if medical issues have been ruled out, always talk to your vet!) may indicate your cat does not feel secure in their environment. There are many ways you can help your cat to feel more secure in their home.

Scent is extremely important in the cat world. Cats have scent glands all over their body and will rub these glands on objects around their home and on their favorite people. People often describe this as the cat “marking their territory”. But, research indicates that cats do not hold territories as much as they establish home ranges (1).

In territorial animals, the space is defended from unknown cats. In this scenario, the scent marks would be located around the parameter of their space to mark the entire area and serve as a warning to stranger cats to leave their area or reap the consequences! But, research has found that free-roaming domestic cats deposit scent markers (pheromones from glands, scratch marking, urine/feces) within their space, along areas most commonly used by the cat. The cats patrol these scent trails in their home range rather than a defined territory.

For cats that live in social groups, there is some evidence there may be a “colony scent” (2) as seen in other animals, such as the European badger (3). I often hear people say that when cats rub on you they are claiming you as their own. But, I prefer to think of it as them “sharing their scent” with you. We, as individual humans, have a unique scent as well. When a cat rubs on you, their scent and your scent combine into a scent representative of your relationship.

So why am I talking so much about odor? Well if your cat does not feel secure in it’s home one reason may be they do not smell enough of themselves throughout the environment. As I mentioned, free-roaming cats leave scent marks  along areas they most commonly use  This can lead cats to pee or defecate outside of the litter box, just to make the area smell more like them. Additionally, a cat may be  extremely lovable with you, but when strangers come over they hide. The cat may be stressed at all the new scents coming into the house (which do not smell like you or them) and retreat from the situation. Of course, this is not the only explanation but an important one to consider.

So how do you help your cat feel secure in their home?

  • Cecilia enjoying her outdoor enclosure!

    Cecilia enjoying her outdoor enclosure!

    Make sure cats have their own “cat spaces.” Try creating spaces using cat towers or vertical shelving they can jump on. If your cat doesn’t like heights, create cat spots on the ground where the cat can be undisturbed and feel safe. As the cat spends time at their new spot it will begin to smell more and more like them and will quickly become their area they can retreat to when feeling insecure. If you create multiple cat spaces in commonly used rooms of the house (the living room or kitchen where you often hang out) the cat is more likely to not hide or stress when people come over. The cat will be more likely to sit on their cat tower and watch you interact with strangers (and reference your behavior) to know that hey, these people are OK and I shouldn’t be afraid of them.

  • Make sure you have more than one litter box. If you don’t have enough litter boxes the cat may feel their scent is too concentrated and needs to be spread out more throughout the house. The cat may inappropriately pee or defecate in other areas of the home. Even though you may not like having multiple boxes, it is important to have more than one and spread them out around the house. As I mentioned before, cats scent mark around areas they commonly use, so use this information to decide the location of litter boxes.
  • Use calming fragrances (these collars seem to work well, they have a
    Cecilia asleep on her cat tower wearing her calming collar.

    Cecilia asleep on her cat tower wearing her calming collar.

    lavender and chamomile fragrance) or synthetic pheromones (such as Feliway). I’ve used both of these items with cats. The calming collar has alleviated stress in my cat (pictured) and Feliway has helped with inappropriate peeing in other cats. Feliway is a synthetic version of the F3 facial pheromone, which is the pheromone cats deposit when they rub their faces on objects. Feliway is scientifically supported in decreasing stress and anxiety in cats (4).

  • CAT TRAINING! A great way to decrease your cat’s stress is to begin training them. This will open up a line of communication between you and your cat and help to strengthen your bond. Trainers often find that after training, cats decrease negative behaviors solely because they have another outlet for their energy and the behaviors they engage in are more positive.  Essentially, they no longer need to engage in negative behaviors to feel secure.

One non-scent related suggestion! Make sure household visitors understand your cat’s boundaries. If your cat is stressed or anxious when people come over, then try to explain to your guests that your cat needs time to open up to strangers. If you have a cat space in the same room as you your entertaining room- the cat can watch at a distance (and smell the stranger’s scent) before interacting. This will help the cat warm up to the strangers. Additionally, while guests are over you can go to your cat intermittently and give them treats or play with them so the cat connects new people with positive experiences.

(1) Feldman, H.N. (1994). Methods of scent marking in the domestic cat. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 72, 1093- 1099.
(2) Bradshaw, J.W.S., Casey, R.A., & Brown, S.L. (2012). The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat. Boston, MA: CABI Publishing.
(3) Wyatt, T. D. (2010). Pheromones and signature mixtures: defining species-wide signals and variable cues for identity in both invertebrates and vertebrates. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 196(10), 685–700. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-010-0564-y
(4) Pageat, P., & Gaultier, E. (2003). Current research in canine and feline pheromones. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 33(2), 187–211.

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