How to Deal with Territorial Behavior in Cats

By Carol McCarthy

Even if your beloved feline is sweet and docile most of the time, chances are you have seen him or her act out of character. As predators, cats are territorial by nature, says Dr. Susan C. Nelson, clinical professor at the Veterinary Health Center at Kansas State University. And while territorial behavior can appear like an angry outburst, other factors are at play, says Dr. Cathy Lund of City Kitty, a feline-only veterinary practice in Providence, Rhode Island.

Causes of Territorial Behavior in Cats

Intact (not neutered) male cats will fight over territory during mating season, but both male and female cats may defend their turf against a cat who is an interloper, Nelson says. The size of that turf can range from a neighborhood, block, or yard to a home or a single room, she notes.

Cats who are poorly socialized when young also might display territorial behavior when a new cat enters the household. Even a cat used to others can react to a new housemate. “There can be some noisy altercations and sometimes outright physical fights,” Nelson says.

Much of this behavior stems from insecurity, Lund says. Cats thrive on predictability and can be “control freaks,” so when their routine or environment is disturbed, they can engage in what veterinarians call “defensive aggression,” she says.

Small changes that seem innocuous to us can be enough to upset a cat. These can include new smells or sounds, such as during a visit to the vet, or another pet coming home from the groomer’s, Lund says. Some cats react to an owner arriving home after a long absence (e.g., vacation, hospitalization) and behaving differently, she says. “A cat’s perfect world would be to get up at the same time, eat at the same time…They want everyone in the house to behave predictably,” Lund says.

Signs of Territorial Behavior in Cats

Territorial behavior can range from largely benign (rubbing their chin on household objects to scent marking) to destructive (clawing furniture) to obnoxious (spraying urine on walls or relieving themselves outside the litter box) to dangerous (clawing, fighting, and biting).

Because cats are particularly sensitive to smells, one that feels insecure or threatened may first use his scent (chin rubbing) or urine to warn other cats. “It’s like a fence,” Lund says of spraying and similar behaviors. “It alerts other cats that this house belongs to Fluffy; don’t go there.” He also might engage in stalking and ambushing while hissing, swatting, growling, biting, and staring, Nelson says.

Sometimes, pet parents can inadvertently trigger what is called “redirected aggression,” when the cat lashes out at his owner or others. Lund gives the example of a client who was watching a New England Patriots football game and excitedly jumped up, threw his arms in the air, and began yelling when the team scored a touchdown. The unpredictable, sudden behavior caused his cat to attack him.

Dealing with Territorial Behavior in Cats

If your cat is exhibiting territorial behavior, first schedule a vet appointment to make sure your cat doesn’t have a medical issue that could be causing the aggression, Nelson says.

If your cat is intact, spaying and neutering will solve much of the problem, the experts agree, as it addresses hormonal triggers.

Other steps you can take to address territorial behavior in cats include:

  • Prevent access to the room or area the cat tends to mark, Nelson says, and don’t leave towels on the floor, which your cat might consider an appealing target.
  • Provide plenty of approved scratching items, Nelson suggests, and keep cats separate, with one roaming the house at a time, if interaction is a trigger.
  • Keep your cat indoors, close blinds, or block window views to keep your pet from seeing neighborhood cats roam his yard, she adds.
  • Use artificial pheromones (which come in plug-in sprayers) to help your cat stay calm. Your veterinarian may also prescribe anti-anxiety drugs, Lund says.

What to Do When Your Cat Is Acting Aggressively

Lund advises against approaching a cat who is agitated or trying to soothe him or pick him up. This can result in redirected aggression that ends up with the pet parent getting bitten or scratched. “Try to shepherd him into a quiet room and shut door,” she says. “You really don’t want to engage a cat that’s reactive. That can impact the whole relationship if it goes wrong and there is an attack.”

Nelson advises pet parents to be aware of the first signs of territorial behavior toward another cat. “Watch for subtle signs of aggression, such as staring, tail flicking, and a soft growl, and try to intervene before an outright fight starts,” she says. “Do this by placing a large pillow between the cats to block their line of sight, and use a squirt gun to distract the aggressor. If they are already fighting, throw a thick blanket or jacket over the cats, use a hose to spray them if outside, a water bottle if inside, or bang on a metal pot. Do not ever try to pick up an agitated cat or use your hands to break up a fight, as you will likely get bitten.”

Again, keep cats in separate rooms if needed.

Preventing Territorial Behavior in Cats

Nelson advises pet parents who want multiple cats to get two kittens from the same litter or two cats of the same age to reduce the chance of territorial aggression. Once your pet is spayed/neutered and has a clean bill of health, ensure that the living situation allows your cat or cats to have control over the environment. “Cats who are very high-strung need the house to be extremely calm, and they need a sense of control,” Lund says. “They want choices.”

Provide places for them to escape to if they feel insecure or threatened by the noise or activity of the household, the experts advise. This can include vertical perches, quiet rooms where you can close a door, multiple litter boxes, and food and water bowls in several places. Keep cats busy with plenty of toys, affection, and a chance to get outside on a protected patio or safe enclosure, Nelson says.

The veterinarians noted that some cats are simply wired to be more high-strung, and pet parents should not take their cat’s behavior personally.

Read more: How to Stop Fighting Between Cats

Causes of Sudden Aggression in Cats

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