A cat and its territory: from marking out the area to its space management methods

Territory is of utmost importance to cats. In fact, after separation from the mother, which takes place between the seventh and the ninth week of life, a cat will develop a strong attachment to its territory.

Often a lack of awareness of this need to defend its territory can affect our peaceful coexistence with our feline housemates. Problem behaviour such as messing outside of the litter tray, scratching the furniture and doors, or aggression between cats living together, can be unpleasant and distressing for all concerned.

With a little help from Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary surgeon and expert in pet behaviour, we will set out to explore the territory of a cat through its own eyes.

How big is a cat’s territory?

The answer to this question is simple: it depends. If a cat lives outside, the likelihood of it finding food in an area will determine the distance it travels. If food is easily accessible, then its territory will be relatively small. For example, feral cats living in colonies in cities often don’t leave the places where food and shelter is in abundance. If food is scarce however, then the territory of a single cat can extend up to 16 acres for females and to 61 acres for males.

If a cat lives in a house as a housecat, then its territory corresponds to the space in which it has access. In these cases, we have to consider the available space in three dimensions – therefore, giving the cat the opportunity to climb high, can greatly increase the range of its territory.

How is a cat’s territory organised?

On this subject, scholars of feline behaviour are divided into two streams. For some, the territory of each cat can be divided in to three areas or ‘territorial fields’: the field of activity, the field of isolation and the field of aggression. In the activity field the cat eats, hunts or plays. In the field of isolation, as the term itself suggests, the cat isolates itself and rests. Usually the isolation area is located in a high spot or hidden away – how many of our cats love to sleep hidden in the closet, for example? Rather than a clearly defined physical space, the field of aggression is a virtual space around the cat’s body that is determined by its current state of tolerance for contact from both its own kind and humankind. It therefore does not have a fixed size, but varies with the emotions of the cat. For example, depending on its mood, on one occasion a cat may like to be stroked or allow another cat to approach, but on other occasions it will repel a caress or another animal nearby.

According to the other scholarly view, the Anglo-Saxon one, the territory of a cat can be divided in to two areas: the home range (family area) where the cat hunts and explores; this territory is often shared among several cats. The second area, the core area or central area, is an area where resources are concentrated and this is why other individuals feel the need to defend it.

In both cases, there are trails, often invisible to our eyes but well outlined in the eyes of a cat, which serve to divide the territory.

What signs mark a cat’s territory?

Just like we have maps and road signs that indicate if a street is one-way or if there is a place to find food in the area, cats have “signs to mark out territory” too. These comprise very clear signals, just like traffic signs, which are represented by scratches and marking with urine. These signs are usually placed in particular areas of the territory that have the advantage of being seen or sensed from afar. The message being communicated is more or less this: “This territory is occupied”. In housecats, for example, we find these signals near the outside door or window if there are other cats nearby.

Dramatic meows, somewhat reminiscent of a police siren, represent another very obvious signal that territory is being defended. How many times have you been woken at night by these urgent and prolonged meows? It is likely that a cat stranger has entered the occupied territory and, before taking action, the homeowner is notifying the other of its presence.

There are also less obvious signs (like street numbers) represented by cats marking their territories with pheromones. Cats do this by rubbing their face and body against doorjambs or the legs of chairs. This type of signal has a reassuring effect on the cat: it will understand that it is home. If these signals are missing or if the territory suddenly changes (for example, because we change the furniture or paint the walls), our cat will find itself in unfamiliar territory, as would happen to us if streets in our neighborhood were changed overnight. In this case, there will inevitably be a period of stress for our feline friends in which they will have to map out their territory afresh.