Do you speak cat? Even though cats express themselves vocally, they primarily use their face, tail and body to communicate with each other and with the humans in their lives. Another important way cats communicate is through marking behavior. Understanding this behavior will not only enhance the relationship between you and your cat, it will also help you prevent potential problems in your household, especially when you have multiple cats.

What is the purpose of marking behavior?

Marking behavior helps cats establish their territory. It helps identify who’s friend and who’s foe, claim ownership of an area, object or person, and defend that territory. Marking behavior includes scent and urine marking, scratching, rubbing and head bunting, middening, and kneading.

Scent marking

A cat’s sense of smell is fourteen times stronger than a human’s. Cats depend on their sense of smell for survival. Scent signals allow them to find food, to determine whether another animal is a friend or an enemy, and to identify their territory. If a cat smells something particularly interesting, you may see her sniffing with her mouth open. This allows the cat to utilize a the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ at the roof of their mouth to analyze scent chemicals, also known as pheromones.

Urine marking

Urine marking is unfortunately (at least from a human perspective) the most common form of scent marking. It usually happens in the form of spraying. Cat guardians often confuse urinating and spraying. Urine spraying is a territorial behavior. Cats stand upright and deposit a small amount of urine on vertical surfaces. Cats who are urinating usually squat and deposit larger amounts on horizontal surfaces. Even though both male and female cats spray, the behavior is mostly seen in unneutered male cats, and occurs more often in multicat households, although even a single cat may spray. Spraying is a natural behavior. It is a misconception that cats spray out of spite.


Cats scratch for a variety of reasons: they scratch to groom their claws, the scratching motion helps remove dead sheaths from their front claws (they usually chew them off their back claws). They scratch for exercise; scratching stretches the muscles in the front legs and all along the back. And they scratch simply because it feels good. Cats’ front paws contain scent glands, and scratching leaves behind their unique signature on the object being scratched. The scratched areas serve as territorial markers.

Rubbing and head bunting

Cats have scent glands on the side of their faces. Rubbing up against an object or a person allows the cat to mark that object or person. It’s a way for the cat to say hello, and to communicate to humans and other animals that the cat wants to bond with them. By rubbing up against you, your cat is essentially marking you as “hers.”


Middening is also known as fecal marking. This lesser known form of marking behavior is more common in outdoor cats, who will defecate in an open area without covering their stool to mark their territory. Even though this behavior is rarer in indoor cats, it does happen.


Kneading, or “making biscuits,” is believed to be a marking behavior that originates in young kittens. By kneading as they nurse, they claim their mother’s nipple as their own.

Inappropriate marking behavior

Inappropriate marking behavior usually manifests as urinating outside the litter box, and while we humans may consider it inappropriate, there’s always a good reason for it from the cat’s perspective. If your cat exhibits unusual marking behavior, or any time you notice a sudden behavior change in your cat, a trip to the veterinarian is in order. Behavior changes can be indicators of a medical problem. Once medical issues have been ruled out, a program of behavioral modification can be implemented.


13 Comments on How Cats Communicate Through Marking Behavior

  1. :By rubbing up against you, your cat is essentially marking you as “hers.” Don’t you mean “theirs”,? Not all cats are female!

  2. our three year old neutered male kitty Athelstan has recently started fecal marking, to be specific he is pooping in the kitchen sink which is really a drag. We’ve recently added a young kitten after the loss of our senior female kitty Maia a few months back so we figure this may be at least partly the cause. I have never even heard of this type of marking behavior so if you have any tips on getting him to stop they would needless to say be greatly appreciated.

  3. Thanks Ingrid for sharing this article

    It’s a great way of educating us Cat parents

    Due to our negligence – we tend to get frustrated with our Cats and even some punish them for merely behaving as Cats should (Spraying)

    It’s up to us Cat parents to understand why they’re spraying and then help them by stopping the cause

    Again, thanks for sharing this article!

    Keep up the good work

  4. A quick note about spraying – it often happens inside the house around windows (curtains are particular favorites) and doors opening to the outside when the perceived threat is outside the house e.g. a strange cat is coming into your yard. It will give you a clue as to why – what you can do about it might be a bit more challenging…..:)

  5. I have a neutered male cat about 2 years old, He gets on my lap frequently and starts kneading the blanket and sometimes it leads to him humping the blanket, I feel somewhat awkward but not sure what to do, I usually try to ignore it or distract him, though usually distraction doesn’t help and he will get a little angry and frustrated. Any ideas to divert his passion to something else, I’ve tried pillows and blankets but for some reason, he only wants the blanket on my lap.This is not a joke!

  6. When I was younger, one of my cats came up behind me and sprayed me on the back. I guess he really loved me to claim me, but at the time I sure didn’t feel loved (as it stained my blouse and I had to get another shower).

  7. Really interesting article; we are about to take on another cat having lost two of our senior ones in two weeks (awful time) and although I like to think we know much about cats there is always something new to learn, so shall look out for all that you write about; not really sure how he is going to behave with our two remaining cats but time will tell and hopefully all will be well. One of our remaining cats is something of a fighter so not altogether looking forward to new arrival but keep paws crossed about it.

    • I’m so sorry about your two seniors, Margaret – what an awful lot of loss in a short time. I’m sure you already know this, but make sure you introduce the newcomer slowly and gradually.

  8. Although she hides it, my human gets a little annoyed when people “meow” at me when I’m out and about because that’s not how you communicate with kitties! Of course, she does not expect people to rub on me and leave their scent on me, but she would like it if they would at least give me slow blinks or something instead of meows. 😉

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