Golden retriever puppy smelling the tile floor.

Why do dogs and cats mark their territory?

Marking behavior can be problematic. Here’s what you need to know.

Smell something funky in the house? It could be that your male cat or dog (in this case, it’s usually a male) has let loose with a spray that stains walls, doors or upholstery, and lingers…and lingers.

When an un-neutered male marks a vertical area with urine, he’s not breaking training; it’s hormone-fueled territorial behavior. He’s staking his claim to a space or object. A pet who does this feels an instinctive need to assert his dominance, discourage unwanted individuals from loitering, and ease his anxiety.

Urine marking can tell another animal how long ago the one who sprayed was in the area. It can also communicate that he’s looking for a mate by advertising his reproductive availability.

There are other reasons that may cause cats to urinate outside a litter box or dogs to soil in the house. An underlying medical condition, a disruption in a daily routine, or a stressful situation all can initiate spraying.

How to prevent spraying

The urge to spray is strong in intact pets, so the simplest solution is to get yours neutered as early as your veterinarian advises. That way, the problem is unlikely to occur in the first place. The longer you wait, the greater the risk that this behavior will continue.

The reason neutering works is that the removal of the testicles diminishes an animal’s sex hormones. That makes it unlikely a pet who’s been neutered will feel the urge to find a mate.

If your pet still sprays …

After being neutered, some pets — and even some females — will continue to exhibit this noxious behavior. That makes it worthwhile to investigate the cause.

A spraying spree can be triggered by stressful situations such as a new pet in the home, a standoff between pets you already have, someone moving in or out, household construction, or bringing home a baby. The behavior can also be caused by something that can only be considered a stressor by unfathomable animal logic, such as someone wearing a new coat, bringing in a big box, or using a cane.

The more pets who live in a house, the more likely it is that at least one of them will spray. There could even be a dog or cat standing outside and staring in through a window who is upsetting them.

Possible medical causes include an underlying condition such as a bladder infection or blockage, which is serious and requires immediate care. So let your veterinarian rule out physical or medical problems. When a pet is marking out of anxiety, anti-anxiety medication may help resolve the issue, as may sessions with an animal behaviorist.

Unmaking a mess

If you come home and find that your pet has marked “his” territory, scrub the area clean as soon as possible and use an enzymatic product to deodorize the area.

Avoid punishment. Don’t yell or rub his nose near the liquid; it will only add to his stress, he won’t understand why you’re upset and it could actually increase his spraying out of fear and confusion.

After it’s thoroughly cleaned, try turning his spraying area into a playing area. Hold and pet him there and serve his dinner in that location. He may never want to mark that place again.

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