Watching the cues will help unlock clues to feline communication - DVM
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Watching the cues will help unlock clues to feline communication


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.

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.
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.

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.

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

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.


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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