No one knows better than I do how territorial cats are. Their home is so important to them that they go to great lengths to mark it with their scent – using glands on their cheeks, flanks and paw pads. You’ve probably seen your cat rubbing or scratching areas in your home and although you don’t see or smell the scent they deposit, they do. Your cat may even rub against your leg to mark you as part of his territory. Unfortunately some cats (usually unsterilized) mark with urine. Simply fixing the cat will usually stop this type of marking – but if it doesn’t, at least the spray will be less noxious and can be cleaned up with the enzymatic cleaners found in pet stores. Once a cat establishes his territory he has a home. Within his invisible scent-laden “walls” he’s safest and has little desire to venture out. Why should he? His softest beds and tastiest food are well within its boundaries.
Yet in spite of understanding this feline phenomenon, once a year – usually when the winter weather breaks and the sun is shining brightest -- I come down with spring fever and forget all I know about cat behavior. One of my eleven happy indoor-only cats goes to the screen door and looks at me like Lucy holding the football – convincing me that this cat -- who spends his waking hours defining his territory within my house --can and “should” be allowed outdoors where he has no territory. I think, “He’ll have fun outside and come right back in after a few minutes of fresh air”. And in a moment of weakness I open the door and let him out in our courtyard – foolishly thinking the garden walls will keep him safely in view – and after a few minutes of sunning he’ll walk back into the house and thank me for his little excursion. Instead -- just like Lucy -- the moment he breaks free from the house he lifts the football – takes a running leap over the wall – and panics. He’s gone in a flash and leaves me feeling guilty and anxious for his safety. This year the cat was Larry – a 12 year-old black feral cat.
When Larry jumped the wall I knew he was gone – at least until dark. He’d do what cats do when they’re suddenly thrust outside their territory – he’d find the nearest hiding place, hunker down and not move again until dusk. Under the cloak of darkness he’d try to get back to his home – or at least find something to eat. I had an idea of where he went and sure enough I found him – under an evergreen along the front yard. Periodically during the day I’d go and make sure he was still there and talk to him but he wouldn’t budge. So I waited and sure enough when the sun went down he showed outside our sun room with all his catmates staring at him through the screen. We opened a nearby door and tried to coax him in but all we did was scare him back under his bush. He came back to the sun room a half hour later and our attempts to coax him indoors failed again. Luckily our sun room has electric screens for walls so I tried a different tact. I brought the other cats indoors closed the door leading to the house and raised the screens. About a half hour later I found him in the sun room so I opened the door and he came running in as fast as he could.
Did he enjoy his outdoor adventure? Not at all. Hiding under a bush all day with nothing to eat or drink isn’t any cat’s definition of fun. A little tough love on my part yesterday morning would have saved him (and me) from himself. But Larry and I still hold to the fantasy that a cat wants to be outdoors even though we both know where a cat really wants to be is in his territory – whether it’s indoors or outdoors isn’t the issue – it just has to be where he’s had the time to mark it with his scent so he and everyone else knows that it’s his home. That’s where a cat is safest – and happiest.