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 as kittens. If its mother doesn’t teach the kitten how to spray with urine, it will only phantom spray. This behavior is seen in neutered and non-neutered males and females.
It can be a sign of stress, so you must figure out why your cat is phantom spraying. There are many reasons which 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 like a wall or a 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 in 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 spraying a graffiti tag, giving somebody your phone number, or giving someone a business card.
Phantom spraying is where the cat does everything associated with spraying apart from urinating. So, it will lift its vibrating tail, and march in place in front of the vertical surface. It will have the 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.
1/ 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.
So, 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. They will learn what’s normal and what isn’t, much like how children learn from their parents.
According to PLoS One, spraying is a normal form of social behavior, like play fighting or 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. Perhaps its mother doesn’t fully spray either.
2/ House Cats May Not Need to Spray
Spraying is a behavior that cats need when living in the wild. If a cat can’t mark its own territory, it will have nowhere it can safely sleep or hunt. It will also find it difficult to find a mate.
This means that cats which 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 it too.
But for house cats, spraying isn’t a pressing need. House cats don’t need to hunt for food, because they’re given it by their owners. 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.
3/ 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.
Take moving house, 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 to it, because it feels secure and that its territory is not challenged.
Moving to a new house changes all of that. A cat is suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar environment that it doesn’t feel secure in. The house doesn’t smell like it anymore, so the cat has to rectify that as soon as possible. One way of doing that is by spraying.
If the cat doesn’t know how to fully spray, i.e. with urine, then it will fake spray when stressed instead.
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 territory and finding a mate.
This is dictated by biology, because 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, then these cats will phantom spray instead.
That’s because while most testosterone is produced in the testes, not all of it is. Some of it is produced elsewhere in the body too. This low level of testosterone can still trigger spraying behaviors. Also, if the behavior became a habit, then the cat may continue spraying out of habit anyway.
Female Cat Pretending to Spray
Despite spraying being associated with male cats, female cats will spray too. Contrary to popular belief, testosterone isn’t only present in males (and estrogen isn’t only present in females). While males have more testosterone than females, females do still have some.
An excess of testosterone in females of any species can predict 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 damage your female cat’s health.
Your 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 young.
Besides, spraying and marking territory is important for female cats too. Female cats need territory to live safely and to hunt in the wild, too. Spraying in female cats is more common when the cat is in heat, so spraying also serves the purpose of 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 purpose of the spray.
Spraying on another cat or a person doesn’t seem to fulfill this purpose, so why do they do it?
1/ You Are a Vertical Surface
You are much taller than your cat. As such, 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 what the surface is doesn’t matter much. All that matters is that it can spray at nose height where other cats can smell it.
So, if your cat pretends to spray rather than spraying with urine, this may be one reason.
2/ 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 highly stressed or uncomfortable, or unless you two are fighting. This is an unlikely, but possible, reason.
If your cat won’t stop spraying or fake spraying at you, talk to a vet. They will help you identify the cause of the problem.