Angry Cat
It’s not unusual for me to hear from clients that their cats are angry or upset or just plain spiteful and are acting out — specifically by urinating on belongings or furnishings. “He’s mad because I’ve been working late/traveling a lot/not coming home for lunch," they’ll say. Or, "I think she’s jealous of my new lover/new baby/new roommate." In every case, these cat owners feel like they are being punished by their pets.

Folks, I’m here to tell you that cats aren’t spiteful. Cats are smart, for sure, but spite is a complex feeling that isn’t part of their emotional repertoire. But cats are easily stressed, and when stress enters their lives, they often respond in ways that are comforting to them but crazy-making to us. 

Why Cats Mark Our Stuff

Here’s how my late colleague veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin explained it: “One thing cats do when they’re stressed out is they urinate or they spray on things belonging to the owner, such as clothing or bedding. They choose things that smell like the owner because that’s where cats feel comfortable.”

It’s not unusual at all for cats to mark with urine when they’re faced with changes in their environment or other things that cause them stress. The most common places for them to mark in this way have some kind of social significance to them: owner possessions; laundry or closet areas, which carry strong scents of the owner; or just in prominent locations of the home, so they can make sure their message gets across. In addition, some cats will mark inside the house to make themselves feel more secure when they see strange cats outdoors. In these cases, the cats will often stand with their tail up and spray vertical surfaces, rather than crouching and urinating on horizontal surfaces.

Of course, this strategy has the unintentional effect of making you mad. And though it’s perfectly understandable to think that your cat is marking your stuff because he knows you don’t like it, in reality, your cat doesn’t know any such thing. He just knows that mingling his scent with yours makes him feel less stressed, whether that stress is caused by a new animal or person in the home or a change in your work or travel schedule. 

What to Do

When your cat starts leaving you stinky notes of distress, the first thing to do is take him to the veterinarian to rule out any medical causes for the behavior. If he’s is an intact male, neutering can often help solve the problem. But if that’s not the case, and your cat isn’t suffering from a urinary tract infection or other illness, the next step is to help reduce his stress levels.

One of the more important things you can do is to make sure his litterbox is super clean. You know how normally it might not bother you that your house is a little messy, but when you’re stressed it drives you mad? Everything that doesn’t go your way bothers you more than usual. Cats are the same way. Scoop the litterbox as soon as you notice it has been used, change the litter more often than usual, and empty the box and clean it with warm water and unscented dish detergent every couple of weeks.

If your cat seems upset by your new significant other or the baby you just brought home from the hospital, go out of your way to associate the newcomer with good things. If the new person is an adult, have him or her give the cat all his meals and hand out favorite treats and toys. Make sure that only good things come from that person. If your cat is fearful, have the new person toss treats in the cat’s direction without making eye contact or even looking at the cat.

When the object of the cat’s stress is a new baby, give meals, treats and toys in the baby’s presence. This will help the cat associate the baby with those good things. But don’t ever leave the cat and the baby alone together — their interactions should always be supervised.

Finally, be sure to spend time with your cat on a regular, predictable schedule. Plan positive daily interactions with your cat, such as play or grooming. It will help your cat to relax if he knows he can count on some special time with you every day, even if it’s just a few minutes.

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