Cat signaling: Learn the behavior dance to help patients

Sep 01, 2005

This is the first in a series that deals with cat signaling behavior. If we are to leave the realm of anthropocentric opinion and begin to really understand feline behavior so that we can better intervene when something goes wrong, we need to understand signaling behaviors in a way that attempts to address how the cat sees and uses them.

Karen Overall, DVM
It's important to realize that no one set of signaling behaviors occur in a vacuum. Visual signals may also be accompanied by tactile signals. Both of these signal types might be accompanied by vocal signals — a reality of feline signaling that has been painfully under-emphasized. All of these signal types, bidden or unbidden, may be accompanied by olfactory signals, a signaling realm that is largely closed to us humans. This means we are almost always going to be missing something about feline signaling, so we should always acknowledge that we could be plagued to an incomplete understanding and because of this, we must work extra hard to take care in reading the signals that are accessible to us.

One of the clues about cat signaling lies in name originally given to cats by Herodotus in ancient Greece: Ailurioi, which means tail waivers. Tail signals are one of the most important signal groups for cats.

Photo 1
When considering the importance of tails in feline signaling, it's helpful to remember that the ancestral cat was likely the northern African wild cat, a cat that looks a lot like a very large tabby in present day. These cats evolved in desert environments that included sand, scrub vegetation, reeds and Savannah-like grasslands.

In this environment, striped tails, like those of modern-day cheetahs in South Africa (Photos 1 and 2) provide excellent "disruptive coloration".

Photo 2: Disruptive coloration makes it more difficult to detect an animal's presence or movement. Cheetahs also provide ancestral behavior clues. For example, tail movement is a signal that the animal is willing to be seen.
Disruptive coloration makes it more difficult to detect an animal's presence and/or movement against certain backgrounds. That said, it logically follows that when cats are willing to be seen, they will elevate and move their tails. So, tail up becomes a signal that cats are willing to be seen, and such cats should then be willing to interact.

In fact, this is exactly what research from Sharon Crowell-Davis' lab at the University of Georgia found: Cats, especially those that are preferred associates — cats that wish to spend time with each other — raise their tails as part of their greeting and signal that they are ready to interact.

Photos 5
We can see this type of signal about impending interaction in many inter-cat situations. In Photo 3, we see this quintessentially curious kitten in a hospital environment. Notice that all of the other body signals — the head posture, the ears, the placement of the paws and the overall stance are in agreement. Note the tail posture is up and slightly curved over the rump. Everything about this cat says he is alert and ready to go. His entire body posture is forward, leaning into the potential interaction. His head is up on his back is straight and fully stretched out, suggesting that there is no inclination to withdraw from any part of the interaction. He is simply not hesitating.

His ears are up and forward and so are his eyes, and they are both focused on the same external point. This is a kitten collecting information about the object of his desire. The tail signals that he desires to interact. Notice that all of these signals are concordant.