Feline communication: Listen to the tail's tale - DVM
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Feline communication: Listen to the tail's tale


Photo 4: The orange Tabby might have behavior history judging by his posture compared to the other cats.
In Photo 4, we have a complete interaction in process. This is a good reminder that behavior is a process, not an event. Yet, we can still glean substantial information from the tail postures of the animals involved. The orange Tabby looks very much like the cat in Photo 1; the tail is wrapped around the feet, and him ears and face have similar positions and expressions. The orange Tabby is not raising his paw; however, his signals are directed to the white cat with the orange head next to him. That object of his focus is studiously ignoring him, but her tail is also wrapped. The difference in the cat signaling lies with the rest of their body signals. The white cat is relatively content with the situation; the Tabby is not. In fact, of the cats in this photo, the Tabby is the one who doesn't fit. There is likely an interesting social history here, given the relatively relaxed or calm postures of the other cats. Notice that the Tabby is also thinner than the other cats. Anxious animals often lose weight. We have no information about the interactions between these cats, but if this photo were produced by a client, I would ask them about their interactions. When one animal is thin and the other is plump, some social factor is often worth investigating.

Photo 5: Fully raised tails signal a willingness to interact. All tail postures are fluid and soft, a sure sign of lack of social tension
Photo 5 is a terrific example of the complexity of tail signaling. Cat tails often have disruptive coloring (bands or colors) that make their presence and movement in grass difficult to detect. Notice the obvious comfort and closeness of the group. Tails are raised to various heights in three of the cats. Fully raised tails signal a willingness to interact. Notice that the cat with the slightly lowered tail is leaving the group. The raised and gently waved tail is a very clear signal that allows other cats in the vicinity to decide whether they would like to interact. Notice that — despite the number of cats — none of them show any piloerection. All tail postures here are fluid and soft — a sure sign of a lack of social tension.

Photo 6: The vulnerable position of the Tabby signals deliberate ease and comfort.
A close up of the cats in the corner is shown in Photo 6. The orange Tabby is showing another tail and body posture that signals a close relationship in cats: his tail is curled against the brown Tabby and his feet are wrapped around the brown Tabby's face. Additionally, his body is fully outstretched, his eyes closed, and his face turned away from the brown Tabby. He has no concerns about threats here and is wholly comfortable in what would, in other circumstances, be a vulnerable position. Drs. Terry Curtis (University of Florida) and Sharon Crowell-Davis (University of Georgia) have noted that "preferred associates" will often wrap their tails around each other in any series of complex designs. The choice of which animal to affiliate with is an active choice here.

Photo 7: Similar tail behaviors can be seen in wild cats; here, two young cheetahs signal a willingness to continue playing.
Finally, in Photo 7, we see these same principles active in wild cats. These young cheetahs in a reserve in South Africa show tails clearly exposed and moving, complete with the disruptive coloration that is so useful in the veldt, and they are obviously playing. They are also signaling their willingness to continue that play.

Understanding these few simple associations can prevent many clients from misinterpreting their cat's behaviors. If clients learn to routinely assay the signals their cats are using in their interactions, they will note the early signs of social instability and will quickly seek veterinary help. Also, if clients understand that the signals displayed by cats in Photos 5 and 6 are sure signs of ease among known associates, behaviors can be used to gauge adjustment when new cats are added to the household. As with most complex social interactions, the earlier any difficulties are addressed, the faster they will improve.

What's your question?

Send your behavior-related questions to: DVM Newsmagazine, 7500 Old Oak Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44130. Your questions will be answered by Dr.Overall in upcoming columns.

Dr.Overall has given hundreds of national and international presentations and short courses and is the author of more than 100 publications on behavioral medicine and lizard behavioral ecology. She is a diplomate of the American College ofVeterinary Behavior (ACVB) and is certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Applied Animal Behaviorist.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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