The great zoologist Dr Desmond Morris writes that feline spraying ‘is the feline equivalent of writing a letter to the Times, publishing a poem, and leaving a calling card all rolled into one jet of urine’. Brilliant.
There are still some misconceptions about feline spraying which has been called territorial marking or scent-marking. Some authorities claim it is a threat to other cats to clear off. But Dr Morris says there is no evidence to support this. Other cats eagerly and with great interest sniff at the scent of the urine. They don’t run away in terror. However, Dr John Bradshaw (Cat Sense) says that spraying is intended to warn off other cats if for example it is done at the entrance to a home. This is slightly different argument.
Morris says that cats sniffing the scent of sprayed urine is like humans reading the daily newspaper. It is a way of catching up on what is going on in their world. They learn about the ‘comings and goings of the feline population’. Even the cat doing the spraying can use his own scent to check how long it has been since he was last there. This is because the pungency of the scent declines with time. Cats can detect this degradation.
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Spraying is unrelated to urinating. The motivation for urinating is a full bladder whereas a cat will spray regardless of the amount of urine in his bladder. If the bladder is full the cat squirts a greater quantity of urine. If nearly empty the urine is ‘rationed’. But the number of squirts remains the same. If the bladder is empty the cat will still try and spray by going through all the usual routines of turning his back, straining to spray, quivering his tail and moving on to the next location. Spraying has it ‘own separate motivation’.
Neutered cats and females also spray but less often and their urine is less pungent to the point where we hardly notice it.
Indoor cats might spray if in a difficult relationship with other cats in a multi-cat household. Inside/outside neutered cats spray fairly often in my experience. Several cats might spray the same object to leave their calling card in overlapping territory.
Catwatching written by Dr Morris remains the best book on cat behavior despite being first published before the existence of the internet. It was first published in 1986. Now the internet is flooded with cat behavior pages but none are as good as Dr Morris’s explanations.