Are Cats Territorial?

Animals in the wild have to find, secure, and protect territory for themselves and their families on a daily basis. Male lions will go as far as fighting other male lions (often to the death) to determine who will rule the pride and who has to go! These large cats are quite territorial, but what about your tabby at home? Are domesticated cats just as territorial? Are our cats territorial over their humans or just their space? Your cat shouldn't be fighting anyone to the death anytime soon, but she still may have those strong natural instincts to defend her turf.

Close-up of a cat
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How cats view territory.

Even after centuries of domestication, cats still remain innately territorial. Felines, even those that remain solely indoors, are carnivorous hunters biologically, making them naturally territorial. They must protect their territory because that's where they store their food, which is also their livelihood!

A cat views her territory as everything in "her world," which is an area that contains familiar smells. New smells that come from other cats, strange people, or even new furniture can be interpreted as a threat to your cat's territory.

Golden retriever dog with ginger tabby cat resting on sofa
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What is the size of a cat's territory?

In the wild, a cat establishes where she eats, sleeps, and hunts as her home base. Domesticated cats are certain to make similar distinctions. A house cat's home base is usually her bed (or maybe her owner's bed), and her home range is typically the house where she lives. If the cat is allowed outside, the home range can extend to the yard. Anything beyond the home range is foreign territory: the outside world.

Ginger tabby cat lying on an unmade bed.
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How do cats mark their territory?

A cat is very clear on what lies within its territory. Cats recognize familiar sights, sounds, and smells that belong to their home — a space they define and defend by marking. Cats will mark their territory to make it known to any potential interloper that their claim belongs to them and only them. Cats mark their territory by:

  • Rubbing
  • Spraying (urinating against a flat, vertical surface like a wall or furniture)
  • Urine or feces deposits
  • Scratching

Why do cats mark their territory?

If a foreign being enters a cat's territory, the cat is sure to send out a warning that the invasion did not go unnoticed and will not be tolerated. Strange animals, humans, and even objects can lead to cat anxiety and fear. Territorial instincts flair up most when cats are under stress or feel threatened. You may notice your cat rubbing, spraying, or scratching more than usual under the following circumstances:

  • A kitten reaches sexual maturity.
  • A new cat enters the household.
  • Major environmental changes like moving.
  • Stray neighborhood cats enter a cat's territory.
Portrait of a Brown Tabby Cat in Fear
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How to stop a cat from marking its territory.

Your cat is exercising its instinctual need to mark territory. Meanwhile, your furniture is covered in scratches, and your house smells like urine. If you want to get ahead of the problem, socialize your cat early, from around 3-12 weeks of age. Early socialization gets your cat used to foreign smells, making her less likely to have a pronounced territorial reaction to unfamiliar phenomenon. If your cat has already started marking, then consider these tips:

  • Clean soiled areas with steam cleaning (do not use harsh chemicals as they can make the problem worse).
  • Make previously marked areas inaccessible or unattractive to your cat.
  • Keep objects that likely cause marking out of reach.
  • Restrict your cat's access to doors and windows where he may see other cats or outdoor triggers.
  • Consult with your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication for your cat.

Are cats territorial over certain items?

It's clear that cats are territorial over space, but what about items? Do cats willingly share their squeaky toys or are those off limits as well? There isn't any scientific evidence showing cats are territorial over items. If your cat is unwilling to share its toys, they may have a problem with an "invader" entering their space and disturbing the residing scent (not necessarily with that invader touching his things).

Petting the cat
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Are cats territorial with humans?

Our cats love us, and they are accustomed to our scents. Our particular smell is a part of a cat's recognizable territory. Cats are wildly independent, but anecdotal evidence shows they can definitely be possessive of their owners. Your feline friend will not appreciate the scent of another cat on your clothing, and the may attempt to "claim you." The behavior doesn't necessarily indicate that a cat wants you specifically, but rather the cat may not want anyone else to claim you. Typical!

How to handle territorial cat aggression

It's important to know what emotions your cat is capable of experiencing and to identify their normal behavior patterns. When a cat feels anxious or threatened, not only will they mark territory, but they may also become aggressive. An aggressive cat may hiss, stalk, or attack another cat.

When you have a cat expressing territorial aggression, things can get tricky! Before anything else, you want to take an aggressive cat to the veterinarian to rule out any health problems. You also want to spay or neuter any intact pets in your home; this alone can help tremendously with eliminating aggression. If you find that your cat is still acting territorial, it's okay to be a little sneaky and trick them at his own game. Cover unfamiliar scents with the scent of your cat, making them feel comfortable with "intruders." Take one of their toys or an article of clothing and rub it on new furniture or a new pet in order to make your cat feel safe and comfortable, surrounded by scents they already know.