An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The No Spray Scare

Dear Greyce, 

I am a contented, seven-year-old cat with a habit that scares people who don't know me. I like to lift my back leg and shake it around a like I am about to spray -  the wall or door or whatever I am around. I have never, ever actually sprayed. By the way, I am a devoted user of my litterbox.

New people who see me in the act are afraid of what I may be doing. 

Could you help me explain my habit to purrsons? 

Here's hoping you can help, 

Dear Catie,

Thank you for presenting such an interesting question. You behaviour reminds me of my late colleague, Friend, a mackeral tabby with a flaming red belly. Here is what she would do: Back up to the object or purrson of desire, quiver her tail ever so slightly as if she was spraying,and then just walk off. Like you, she never, ever sprayed!

What has stumped me in your case is your leg shake which seems more dog-like than feline. Whatever.

Such actions as Friend's and yours are called dummy displays. No, this does NOT refer to your I.Q. but rather to the fact that it looks like the real thing (i.e., spraying) but is not. It usually occurs between two toms as part of a contest between them (though rarely if ever do they spray in a cat fight).

As luck would have it, I was perusing some gripping evening reading, Roger Tabor's Cat Behavior. A Complete Guide to Understanding How Your Cat Works (Reader's Digest, 1997). Tabor is distinguished for studies based on direct observation of cat colonies (feral cats who live in groups); his work really is worth a basket of catnip and more.

He suggests that cats who air spray (that is, go through the motions without actually depositing ANY urine) are anxious; and when supported by their purrson's presence (because that presence gives them confidence) they "go through the motions" without actually producing anything.

So Catie, our friend Roger would say that when you are a tad anxious (and likely when your purrson is present to enhance your confidence), you air spray.

End of story.