In this article we cover why a cat’s territory is so important and how it is linked to aggression and spraying. You will learn the 15 behaviours to look for which indicate territory tantrums.   

As a feline behaviourist, territory issues are one of the most common issues I address with feline guardians. A cat’s territory is such a crucial part of their environment. Read on to find out more.


Time to relax

We all like to get into comfy clothes and kick back when we get home from work or being out with friends right? You like to have somewhere where you can chill out, shut yourself away from the world and be yourself – well it is exactly the same for cats!

Cats need positive, established territory so they can feel safe, secure, and confident in their environment. 

Why is territory so important?

Cats are essentially solitary hunters (I’m not going to cover multi cat households here and how domesticated cats have evolved to use social structures to live in a multi cat household … I’ll save that for another day!). 

For the purposes of this blog we are going to talk about cats as solitary hunters. They need to have an area where they feel safe enough to eat, sleep, play and hunt without feeling threatened by another cat or in a constant state of anxiety. When they have positively established territory, they thrive rather than just survive. 

If a cat has limited territory or unestablished territory it can lead to what we would term ‘problem behaviours.’ The key to note here is that we may find the behaviours annoying or frustrating but for a cat they are perfectly normal methods of marking their space and building those territory boundaries. More on this below.

What is territory?

Your cat’s territory is where your cat has all its required resources. A space/area it can call its own and not experience conflict with another cat or animal. As you may or may not know cats will do anything to avoid conflict – it is one of their basic survival instincts.

It might be helpful to break it down into three elements:

  • Core territory
  • Hunting territory
  • Shared/common territory

Core territory

Core territory is where the cat will eat, sleep, and relax. And defend at all costs! This isn’t just the house; this could be certain areas of the house. It’s likely to include the area where they have their litter tray, food/water resources and where they sleep. So, it’s not as straightforward as a single room or two, it may be certain parts of several rooms!

Hunting territory

Hunting territory is the area where a cat can exhibit natural predator/prey type behaviours. This isn’t limited to outdoor cats, where they can physically explore and hunt small animals. Indoor cats will also have a hunting territory area – it’s likely to be where they play.  

Shared/common/neutral territory

This is generally where territory overlaps both inside and outside the home. For outdoor cats it could be the end of two back gardens. The two cats will pass each other with perhaps a slightly aggressive exchange but ultimately, they will try to avoid conflict. For indoor cats this may be communal areas such as hallways or an ‘unused’ room such as the kitchen. 

What does good territory look like?

Good territory is linked to the appropriate provision of resources for a cat, the available space they have and established key scent markers. What does this mean?? Well for a cat to have established, positive territory it needs to have all its basic needs met. 

It needs to have a feeding station, water bowl(s), litter tray(s), scratching post(s) and cat beds. These all act as ‘markers’ in their territory. Some will have more of an effect than others e.g. the food station is where a cat can eat without being disturbed, this can be moved and isn’t heavily scent dependant. However, scratching posts and cat beds are key markers in a cat’s territory as they are heavy with the cat’s scent.

Scent is sooooo important for territory

As I’ve mentioned above, key scent markers are such a crucial part in territory building for cats. As you know cats communicate by scent – it’s the first of their senses that develop as kittens and they use it for EVERYTHING! ~ To check the quality of their food, to communicate to humans and other cats, to establish and mark their territory and much more. A cat’s territory is defined by their scent. 

Let’s just read that again: 

A cat’s territory is defined by their scent

That’s right I’m going to make it large and bold because if there is one takeaway that I want you to have from this blog it is that: 

A cat’s territory is defined by their scent

How does it affect my cat if they don’t have established territory?

Badly. There is no point beating about the bush. If your cat doesn’t have established territory it’s bad news for the cat, humans, and others in the household. It means your cat cannot relax and fully enjoy its surroundings. It means that your cat is either in a constant state of stress and anxiety, or in fear and hiding, neither of which is how we want our cat to be.  

15 signs to look for that may indicate territory tantrums

The list below is a high-level overview of how your cat could be displaying a lack of established territory. A cat may not display all of these, but they are key signs to look for. It will depend on the temperament of your cat as to whether they will attack or retreat. Either way, it’s bad news for all involved! 

  1. Spraying around the house and surrounding areas
  2. Demonstrating high levels of aggression towards other animals/humans in the house
  3. Bullying other cats
  4. Preventing access to litter trays for other cats in the house
  5. Weeing/pooing around the house
  6. Attacking without provocation
  7. Scratching in ‘inappropriate’ places
  8. Excessive/reduced vocalisation
  9. Spending excessive amount of time outside
  10. Hiding (retreating because they don’t feel confident to be out and about)
  11. On high alert – constant state of stress/anxiety
  12. Refusing contact
  13. Refusing to engage in play activity
  14. Reduced appetite
  15. Only coming out at night/when no-one is around

How can you help?

The good news is helping a cat establish territory is a really easy thing to do. Get ready for some homework…

  • Check you have all the required resources. Make sure your cat has everything it needs:
    • One litter tray per cat plus a spare (at least)
    • Litter tray in a ‘safe space’
    • A place to eat where it won’t be interrupted/attacked
    • Its own cat beds
    • Its own scratching posts
    • High vantage points
    • Areas to retreat/hide/feel safe
    • Interaction and ‘fun’ with humans in the household
  • Do scent work with your cat. To help to get your cat’s scent on things around the home, use a sock or piece of fabric and gently rub or wipe it along the side of the cat’s face (where they have scent glands). Then rub this on doorways, furniture, scratching posts etc. Help the cat to put its scent in and around the home. 
  • Become a detective and try to identify when/why your cat is not happy. Is there a trigger? If so, you can deal with it? Remove the trigger, add a resource, or begin behaviour modification with your cat to accept the circumstances.
  • Get the cat checked by the vet. If there are ever behaviour issues, I always advise my clients to have the cat checked out just to rule out any potential underlying medical issue. Pain can make cats very aggressive. 
  • Don’t give up. Cats are always communicating with us – just because they speak cat and we speak human doesn’t mean we can’t listen to them. You may just need an interpreter. Which brings me onto the last point…
  • Get help. There is nothing wrong in asking for help. A feline behaviourist will probably be able to identify straight away any issues with the territory set up. Not only do they speak ‘cat’ and can help you interpret the current situation, they can make helpful suggestions for improvements. Sometimes others can see what we can’t. 

Julie-Anne Thorne is a holistic feline behaviourist. She created Naturally Cats to provide holistic help for cats and their guardians. She uses a combination of environment enrichment, behaviour modification and botanical remedies to help support cats emotionally to remove problem behaviours. She adapts her approach for each situation to give the cat a voice when working with a family. She helps to educate feline guardians so they can provide for their cat and watch them thrive not just survive.

Visit Julie-Anne’s website. Visit her Naturally Cats Facebook Page and Facebook Discussion Group.

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The veterinary Surgeon’s Act 1966 restricts the treatment of animals (usually other than your own*) by anyone other than a qualified vet. Always consult a veterinary surgeon if you are concerned about your animal’s health. *For full details visit the RCVS website