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Cat signaling: Learn the behavior dance to help patients


DVM360 MAGAZINE


Get the message across

Concordance is an underused aspect of understanding signaling. There are two main patterns in virtually all types of signaling that will help us understand it.


Photo 6: These cats are showing a willingness to interact but remain uncertain. An arched back as depicted in the top photograph indicates a willingness to flee. The raised forepaw indicates a change in behavior is about to take place.
First, truly important signals are redundant. The more essential a signal is, the more likely it is to be repeated and the more often it is repeated. Think about the last time you were on an airplane. No matter what reading material you explored or what you listened to, there were two main messages that the crew needed to send: use of seat-belts and emergency exit locations. The message is delivered repeatedly and methodically throughout a trip. None of the stuff in the middle matters; it is simply a way to dress up the message of greatest importance. The information is repeated in a variety of ways and in various contexts that it would allow the majority of humans present to get the message.

Get the message across

The information encoded in mammalian DNA is even more redundant. Neurotransmitters are so critical to functioning that there are multiple opportunities to encode for them, and the regions that encode them are diverse and broadly distributed.

The second pattern in signaling is concordance. For example, within a signaling class, all signals given by all body parts and regions are concordant — they all go in the same direction. For visual and postural signals, this means that when the animal is committed to the interaction or situation, the tail agrees with the back, agrees with the ears, agrees with the eyes. When there is some uncertainty or lack of full commitment, some of the signals are not concordant. The back may suggest a link to mobility and movement, while the tail suggests a willingness to be seen. Yet, you can be willing to be seen and willing to flee at the same time. In fact, this is a completely logical signal if you do not wish to be pursued. Signals can also be concordant or discordant across modalities: Your body can say one thing while your voice or your scent says another. Humans do this all the time when they lie.

Clear signaling

So, our kitten in Photo 3 is making sure that he is clearly signaling his wish to interact. Interaction is not necessarily benign, so clear signaling is critical. When this cat is allowed out of his cage (Photo 4), the more the human coaxes him to approach, the less certain he becomes. His topline or back is still parallel to the horizon, his tail is still up, and his front legs are still stretched, but now his ears are up but pulled back a bit, and his gaze is off to the side. He is considering his options, and considering not going to where he is called. The cue that he is uncertain is found in the ears: When the ears are up but partially back, the cat is somewhat indecisive, but definitely not committed to moving immediately forward. Note, also, that from the human's point of view, the cat's neck is turned away. This indicates that the cat is not a threat, and that he is disengaging from the interaction with her, specifically.

We see a variant of this response in the kittens in Photo 5. Note that the striped kitten on the left has his tail curved up, but it is a bit lower. The tail on the grey cat is in a similar position but raised a bit more and is a bit straighter. These kittens are participating in a kitten class and don't know each other.

They are curious and are signaling a conditional willingness to interact, along with their uncertainty. The gray kitten is fully committed to his decision, and his ears are up and forward. He is also moving a bit away from the tabby, and having fully turned his neck and back, clearly feels no serious threat. The tabby's ears are like those of the kitten in Photo 4 — up but back a bit and he is looking at the gray cat. He wants to approach, but he is uncertain.


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Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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