Feline Scent-Marking: Cat Communication

By: Kira Ramdas, DVM

TVMA Member
The Woodlands, TX

Published December 2014

Photo by Brian O'Neill

Have you ever been head-butted at 3 a.m. by your favorite feline? This behavior—identified as “bunting”—occurs when a cat rubs up against a person to deposit scent. This might be a way for cats to display social status or social dominance. For others, it might just be a gentle reminder that they don’t have opposable thumbs, as in “Owner, can you please open that can of cat food right meow?”

Scent-marking in Cats is Communication

Scent-marking in cats is a form of olfactoryOf or relating to the sense of smell. communication. Scent is released from rubbing various sebaceousOf or relating to oil or fat. glands along the forehead, tail, lips, chin and paw pads along surfaces or onto other animals. Dominant male cats may scent-mark through rubbing objects with their cheeks more than subordinateLower in rank or position. males.

How Does Scent-marking Happen?

Other forms of scent-marking in cats include urine spraying, deposition of fecal matter and anal sac excretion. Surprisingly enough, cats are actually able to distinguish between urine deposited while squatting as opposed to urine that has been sprayed, which allows them to read into its implications. Urine is used to mark the edges of a cat’s established territory. When a cat recognizes pheromonesA chemical substance produced and released into the environment by an animal in urine, it displays a facial expression that can only be described as the Elvis Presley of cat faces – a lip-curled gape whereby the cat can use its vomeronasal organs (sensory glands located in the roof of the mouth) to determine the sex of the urine’s donor. This is termed the Flehmen response.

Why Do Cats Rub Against Things?

When felines encounter inanimate objects, they tend to rub their tails and sides on them. On people, as well as familiar dogs and cats, a cat might rub its face to deposit scent, which identifies those marked as belonging to a specific group. This is why when a housemate leaves for a veterinary appointment and comes back smelling of the hospital and not the “group,” conflicts can occur. For this reason, it can be useful when integrating new cats or bringing pets home after an absence to rub them with the other cat’s scent to help reintegrate them back into the group.

Next time your cat leans in for a little cheek action know that he’s leaving a little bit of himself with you, so every cat you come across knows that you’re part of his fur gang.


Sources:

Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, Karen Overall, 1997. The Cat, Susan Little, 2013.

Kira Ramdas, DVM, is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and lives in The Woodlands, Texas. Dr. Ramdas practices at Just Cats Veterinary Services.