Questions About Cats

Why Does My Cat Fake Spray? (Phantom Spraying in Cats)

Cats spray urine to mark territory and find mates. So, why a cat would shake its tail, but not release urine, can be a bit perplexing.

Cats pretend to spray because they haven’t learned how. It’s learned from their mothers or other cats while kittens. If its mother doesn’t teach the kitten how to spray with urine, it will phantom spray. This behavior is seen in neutered and non-neutered males and females.

It can be a sign of stress, so you must learn why your cat is phantom spraying. Many explanations relate to cats’ social behaviors.

What Is Fake Spraying in Cats?

Spraying is a common behavior in cats. The cat will stand with its back towards a vertical surface, such as a wall or tree trunk. It will then raise its tail, which will appear to quiver or vibrate.

It may stand and appear to march in place for a while with its front legs moving up and down. It will then spray urine on the vertical surface it’s standing next to. The cat may or may not skip the ‘marking’ stage for unclear reasons.


Urine is a common ‘tool’ used by mammals for marking territory. So, as the cat goes about its day, it will periodically spray to reinforce these territorial boundaries. According to PLoS One, house cats still have this instinct from when they were wild.

Other cats will then smell these boundaries and choose to stay away. This is also useful for finding a mate. It’s like the cat equivalent of giving somebody your phone number or business card.

Phantom spraying is where the cat does everything associated with spraying apart from urinating. It will lift its vibrating tail, and march in place in front of the vertical surface. It will have an intense look on its face that it usually does when spraying. The only thing missing is the urination.

Why Do Cats Phantom Spray?

The main question is why cats phantom spray, as opposed to using their urine. The purpose of spraying is to mark territory and find a mate, so it would seem that phantom spraying serves no purpose.

Your Cat Sees Other Cats Spraying

Cats learn social behaviors from each other. Kittens in a litter don’t only learn to open their eyes, walk around, and navigate the world. They also learn how to interact with other cats from their mother.

For example, kittens will learn to groom themselves and each other from watching their mothers do so. They will learn how to play fight and, if possible, how to hunt.

According to PLoS One, spraying is normal social behavior, like play fighting and grooming other cats. So, if a kitten sees its mother spraying or phantom spraying, the kitten may copy the behavior. The kitten may also copy the behavior of stranger cats that spray outside your home.

As for why the kitten will learn to fake spray rather than properly spray, that isn’t clear. Likely, its mother doesn’t fully spray either.

House Cats May Not Need to Spray

Spraying is a behavior that cats need to do when living in the wild. If a cat can’t mark its own territory, it will have nowhere to sleep or hunt that’s safe. It will also make it difficult to find a mate.

This means that cats that phantom spray in the wild may struggle to pass on their genes, or even survive. That’s why all species of cats learn to spray. According to Nature, lions do the same thing.

For house cats, spraying isn’t a pressing need. House cats don’t need to hunt for food because their owners give it to them. If a cat lives alone, it doesn’t need to mark territory because there are no threats. Spayed/neutered cats don’t need to find mates, and stud cats are matched with mates by people, not through spraying.

This has allowed cats that only phantom spray to survive and pass on their genes. It also means that if a mother cat doesn’t teach its kittens to spray properly, it doesn’t matter. The kittens will survive and potentially pass on their genes anyway. So, the decreased importance of spraying can also explain this phenomenon.

Stress Makes Cats Spray

Anxiety in cats can lead to many unusual behaviors, including spraying. That’s because stress is linked to a feeling of insecurity in an environment.

Consider moving home, for example. Cats find moving house stressful because they view their homes as their territories. A cat can smell its own scent throughout its house, which is comforting because it feels secure and that its territory is not challenged.

Moving to a new house changes that. A cat is suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar environment where it doesn’t feel secure. The house doesn’t smell like it anymore, so the cat has to rectify that, and one way of doing that is by spraying.

If the cat doesn’t know how to spray with urine, it will fake spray when stressed.

Neutered Male Cat Pretending to Spray

Spraying is a common behavior in male cats that haven’t been neutered. That’s because non-neutered male cats are more concerned with finding territory and a mate.

This is dictated by biology. Before the neutering procedure, the cat produces more testosterone. The more testosterone the body produces, the more likely ‘male’ behaviors become in mammals. The majority of the male body’s testosterone in mammals is generated in the testes.

But neutered male cats will still spray, too. And if they never learned how to spray with urine, they will choose to phantom spray instead.

While most testosterone is produced in the testes, some of it is produced in other parts of the body. This low level of testosterone can still trigger spraying behaviors, though. If the behavior became a habit, then the cat may continue spraying out of habit.


Female Cat Pretending to Spray

Despite spraying being associated with male cats, female cats may also spray. Testosterone isn’t only present in males (and estrogen isn’t only present in females). While males have significantly more testosterone than females, females do still have some testosterone.

An excess of testosterone in females of any species can lead to behaviors associated with males. So, if your female cat pretends to spray all the time, it may have an excess of testosterone in its body. This isn’t anything to worry about, and it won’t harm a female cat’s health.

A female cat may also have learned the habit of spraying from watching other cats. As stated above, cats learn social behaviors from their parents and other cats when they are young.

Besides, spraying and marking territory is important for female cats. Female cats also need territory to live safely and to hunt in the wild. Spraying in female cats is more common when the cat is in heat, so spraying helps with finding a mate, as it does in male cats.

Why Does My Cat Pretend to Spray on Me?

It is rare for a cat to spray on another cat or person. Cats will spray at nose-level on a vertical surface of some kind. This allows other cats to find the spray and sniff it easily, which is the spray’s purpose. Spraying on another cat or a person doesn’t seem to fulfill this purpose, so why do they do it?

You Are a Vertical Surface

You are much taller than your cat. So, your height may trigger a cat’s instinctual spraying reflex.

Cats will spray on other tall things like trees, lamp posts, and walls. They do so without thinking much about the surface, because the surface doesn’t matter all that much. All that matters is that it can spray at nose height where other cats can smell it.

Cats Spray on Other Cats when Fighting

In rare circumstances, a cat may spray on another cat when the pair are fighting. The purpose of this behavior is to display dominance. It’s as if the cat is marking the other cat as its territory.

This behavior is not atypical, but is unusual. And your cat is unlikely to do this to your leg unless you make it feel very stressed or uncomfortable, or unless you are fighting. It’s unlikely, but it can happen.