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Watching the cues will help unlock clues to feline communication


The third column in this continuing series on feline communication will focus on overall body posturing and the behavioral information it provides. Because no signaling system can be removed from the context of the entire animal, using what we have learned from observation of behavioral cues from felines' faces and tails can be extremely useful when we look at the cat in its relevant social context.

The third column in this continuing series on feline communication will focus on overall body posturing and the behavioral information it provides. Because no signaling system can be removed from the context of the entire animal, using what we have learned from observation of behavioral cues from felines' faces and tails can be extremely useful when we look at the cat in its relevant social context. For other feline signaling columns refer to the September and November 2005 issues of DVM Newsmagazine.

To begin this discussion, let's examine the cat's cues in Photo 1. Note she is hunched over a food dish yet still paying attention to the approaching dog. The dog is looking away from the cat's gaze and is actually in the process of turning away. The cat's ears are pulled a little up and back. Notice you can see both the top and inside of the left pinna, a signal that correlates with some amount of offensive aggression. At the same time, the cat appears hunched down and over a food bowl, a body posture we might associate with some degree of withdrawal except for the fact that food is involved. It's possible that this could be interpreted, in part, to a withdrawal from overall social interaction in order to eat. To truly understand a behavioral interaction, the interpreter must understand the context in which the behavioral cues are made. Sometimes the entire context is not clear, and the evaluator must be honest and know what it is that they cannot see or evaluate. Here, the food dish is a clear contextual clue.

Photo 1: Notice the positioning of the cat's ears, and the dog is looking away from the cat's gaze. This cat is showing some signs of offensive aggression.

Next, look at the cat's tail. It's slightly puffed, indicating a slight increase in reactivity. Notice the cat's tail is not lying flaccid on the floor; it's slightly elevated. Remember that still photos only represent a fraction of a second in what are likely to be complex and lengthy sequences. By learning about basic communication patterns and correlations among classes of behaviors, we can intuit that this cat is likely moving her tail a bit. If this is so, it's another sign of arousal, and one often signaling a willingness to move.

Remember there are benefits and drawbacks to evaluating behavior through still images. The single best behavioral tool is a video camera.

So far, we can deduce this cat is aroused, is willing to move and shows some evidence of offensive aggression. Onto the next clue; look at the cat's back. Careful examination of the cat shows piloerection down the dorsum. This is evidence of heightened arousal and reactivity, and suggests that such reactions are not focusing on friendly, inclusive behaviors. Piloerection always goes with behaviors signaling a decreased affiliative tendency.

Accordingly, the dog correctly interpreted that the decision to further approach this cat or her food dish carried a degree of risk that he was not willing to assume.

What's informative?

In Photo 2, we have a signaling situation that overlaps what we have deduced in Photo 1. If we work on assessing the cat's signals from right to left, we can see which signals are informative. Here, the tail is piloerected to some extent and elevated off the ground. From the hump at the base end of the tail, we can assume that the carriage off the ground is associated with movement. So, we have an aroused cat who is willing to move. But in this photograph the cat is going to do so in a friendly manner. The clues are apparent in the body stance and face. This kitten's ears are open and forward, the face is intense but showing no signs of agonistic behavior. The feet are broad-spread with toes flexed — an action often associated with getting better traction. It makes sense here to scan the cat's postures from right-to-left. The cat's right paw is elevated, and it's clear that the cat is going to swat at something. We would expect that the swat would be playful given the facial signals. In fact, this kitten is playing with a toy. This type of detailed examination of a depicted behavior in a stepwise or directional manner can be a useful tool to minimize bias in interpretation.

Photo 2: The kitten's ears (open and forward) and wide stance indicate a willingness to interact.


In Photo 3, we see an exaggerated form of the situation previously discussed in Photo 2. The cat's tail is slightly piloerected. (You can see this by looking at the edges at the bend). The cat's back paws are flexed and dug into the carpet. The cat's ears are far forward, and the animal's face suggests that this is an intense, alert, inquisitive cat. The left paw is stretched out and flexed against a hard surface, suggesting that this cat either just has (or soon will) swat at something. Again, this kitten is playing. We see that these patterns are retained throughout many ages of kittenhood. The bigger and more athletic the kitten, the more he can stretch out. It's important to recognize which patterns are stable and which change with age so that we can school our clients to look for deviations that may indicate a problematic behavior.

Photo 3: Recognizing patterns that are stable or change with age is also an important concept in applying behavioral evaluations.

The earlier we convince our clients to attend to their cat's behaviors, the more attuned they will be to behaviors that indicate behavioral or physical change and/or pathology. All pathologies are more easily treated when they have been detected early. This is especially true for behavioral concerns because with practice, animals learn inappropriate or pathological behaviors by retaining information about those behaviors encoded as molecular changes in their brains.

Signs of concern

Photo 4 shows a cat who is part of a blood-donor colony, relaxing in the middle of the room with other cats. This photo shares many similarities with those we have already discussed, but it's the differences that are important. The big difference is that this cat is lying down on his side. The other cats are all upright. Upright animals have to go through fewer behaviors to move or to act.

Photo 4: The cat's curled paw and raised head are the first clues that it might be anticipating activity, but he does not look overly aroused offensively or defensively.

A cat like the one in Photo 4 would have to right himself before he moves. The positioning leaves the animal more vulnerable should a threat arise. This cat shows no signs of concern. Therefore, the alternate interpretation that he is comfortable is more likely. What specific behaviors allow us to draw this conclusion?

Again, let's work from the tail to the head. The tail is not piloerected; it remains curved and against the floor. If any movements are being made, they are likely languid. The cat's hind legs are relaxed and neither toes, nor feet, are flexed. This cat is not going anywhere and not planning to go anywhere since he has downplayed roles for traction. This cat's belly is almost completely exposed and relaxed. The cat is stretched out, and his coat is smooth. All of these signals suggest a relaxed animal.

The right paw of this cat is curled and the arm is adducted. This is the first hint we have that this cat may be anticipating some activity. The cat's head is up — an energy-consuming process compared with the rest of his body posture. This cat's whiskers are out (visible on his right) and his ears are up, but a little pulled out and down.

This positioning suggests that he is aroused in an offensive manner; his eyes are focused on something, but he does not look overly aroused in either an offensive or defensive manner. His left leg is bearing his weight, but the shoulder is extended, suggesting the positioning is weight-bearing and not a readiness to react. A look to the far right suggests that other animals are passing by, suggesting that this cat's posture has something to do with social interactions.

If we look at Photo 5, we can confirm this finding: this cat reaches out to some other cats in the colony, in what is likely to be a more friendly or affiliative manner.

Photo 5: Notice the cat's eyes are closed as he reaches out, suggesting a friendly gesture. The orange cat is clearly unthreatened by the interaction.

Concordance with signaling systems

Clearly the yellow cat on the right in Photo 5 is unconcerned, and our target cat closes his eyes as he reaches out — a sure sign he is not being a threat.

What's important and nicely illustrated in Photos 4 and 5 is the concordance or sense of agreement between all parts of the signaling systems. This concordance is what likely allows us to develop a gestalt or gut sense of what the behavior is conveying. Being able to break down the individual signals is critical when we wish to look at which signals are not concordant. Such information gives us clues as to what went wrong and which behaviors can be used to assess changes in social interactions. Remember, repetition of signal information is most common when the message is essential. In social animals, signaling that you are not a random threat is key to continued social integration.

Finally, we see a cat who is clearly signaling his desire to not interact (Photo 6). Compare this cat to the one in Photos 4 and 5. Again, look at the postures starting with the tail and move to the head. The tail is tightly curled around the end of the body and covers the ventral surfaces of the hind legs. Instead of being extended and relaxed, the hind legs are contracted, but there is still no flexion with the hind feet and toes. The back is not extended, but shows a curl to the spine, closing the body. The belly is almost impossible to see as a result of the curled and tucked posture. The neck is tucked, and the head is down but this cat is neither asleep nor relaxed. Look at this cat's face: the whiskers are out (a sign of some arousal) and the ears are pricked and back. While the cat is squinting, he is holding his head up just a bit. The cat's front legs are not visible because they are tucked.

Photo 6: Evaluating an animal in a broader social context is another key to understanding behaviors.

This cat is alert and concerned about monitoring the environment, but is using every body part to signal that he doesn't want to be approached and is not open to social engagement. This impression is conveyed even more forcefully when we are able to evaluate this cat in the broader social context of his environment. Not only is this animal kept apart by a case wall and his body posture, he is actually separate from the entire group. We cannot know why this is so without an ongoing ethological analysis, but the behavior provides us with numerous ideas about why this might be so. It allows us to begin to understand problem behaviors and to help those involved.

Dr. Overall, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, has given hundreds of national and international presentations on behavioral medicine. She is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (ACVB) and is board certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Applied Animal Behaviorist.

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