For most of us humans, home has clear fixed boundaries, and we mark these boundaries with solid walls. If we live in a flat, indoors is home and humans don’t enter unless we let them. We control the space completely.
If we live in a house with a garden, then there are the house walls and slightly different boundaries marked either by lower walls or by fences or hedges or wire netting. In open plan estates, only a small line of shrubs mark the boundaries. But we know they are there, even if we can step across them. The garden is our space.
We control the garden boundaries and other humans don’t go into it unless we ask them in. We keep out of theirs. But your cat doesn’t recognise these boundaries at all. For a cat there is a core home territory and a home range for hunting.
A cat that spends some time out of doors usually recognises indoors as more or less its core home territory. But it still doesn’t recognise that physical boundaries like walls or doors as marking out their hunting range. These are obviously obstacles for a cat, but they do not necessarily mean boundaries to them. This may be why cats make their humans into door keepers, asking to be let out, only to insist on being let in again, a number of times. They don’t recognise the meaning of doors, seeing them merely as inconvenient obstacles.
Going in and out reassures them that the outside hunting range is still open to them. The most obvious example of the difference between you and your cat are the walls or hedges of your garden. You stay inside the walls and hedges, even though you could climb over them into your next door neighbour’s garden space. Your cat often pays no attention to them at all and may well, unless chased or frightened out, treat your neighbour’s garden as part of its hunting range. Your cat also has a different attitude to roads. You see a road as a pathway and also as a barrier. Pausing at the side of a road, you take care in crossing it. Your cat probably doesn’t see the road as a pathway at all and it has only a vague sense of it as a barrier.
Passing cars will make it pause before crossing while they are passing, but it has no sense of the potential danger from a car far off. If your cat lives near a main road, it will not hesitate to cross it, to get to an attractive hunting ground at the other side. It simply doesn’t recognise traffic danger. At night, when its eyes are dazzled by headlights, this will probably cost it its life. Cats have their own pathways, which may well not coincide with human paths.
Your cat has a smell map of its hunting range. Its pathways are defined by scent markings left by itself and other cats – chin or cheek rubbing places, urine spraying places or places where it leaves a poo message. We still don’t know why some places are marked by cheek rubbing and other by urine marks. We know cats don’t rub and spray on the same place but we do not know exactly what is going on in a cat’s mind when it marks its territory.
Your cat may avoid the places where a frightening local cat sprays, recognising these spray marks as feline notices like “Kilroy was here” graffiti. Or it may spray over the existing mark, perhaps leaving itself a sort of whiff note, like a post-it note, reminding itself that this is an area which makes it feel anxious about another cat.
At other spray sites it will recognise messages left by more than one cat, marking areas where several cat share territory. It may add its own mark to the existing ones, not to blot them out, but to put an additional message there. These multiple spray mark sites may be like a bulletin boards on the feline equivalent of a communal village green, where several cats can legitimately enjoy the area in common, though perhaps at different times. There may even be spray messages (perhaps from cats in season) which invite other cats to come up and see them sometime! Because we can’t smell well, we find it difficult to decode the meanings. Finally your cat will also recognise visually and by scent, scratch marks within its territory.
The scent will have been left by the sweat glands of the scratching cat’s paw pads. Your cat may add its own scratch to the site. The scratches may mean “Kilroy was here” or something like “Look at me – I scratch higher!”