Feline communication: Integrate the sign into a strategy

May 01, 2006

The final column in this series on feline communication focuses on integrating all the signals we have discussed and in reviewing their roles given the context of the specific behavioral environment.

Photo 1: Removed from active social behavior, this cat is still on alert.
Social interactions are not all-or-nothing situations; they are negotiated and nuanced dances. In Photo 1, the cat is settled in the most simple of environmental enrichment tools — the cardboard box. This box is sufficiently snug that the cat can rest his head against one end and still monitor the cats in the surrounding social swirl. The position of the cat's ears and his pupil size suggest that this cat is fairly alert, but he is not reactive. By virtue of being in an enclosed space, he has removed himself from active social behavior at this point in time, and by virtue of his ability to monitor such social interaction, he maintains control over his ability to change his mind. Both of these behaviors — taking yourself out of the social milieu in a manner that permits some form of "hiding" and maintaining control over your decisions — minimizes stress that cats can feel. In fact, early papers on stress in laboratory cats showed that having the ability to hide reduced physiological stress, and that enhanced physiological stress was associated with thwarted attempts to hide. So, having some ability to control either your environment or your response to your environment is important for a behaviorally healthy cat.

Photo 2: From a sitting position, this cat still has choices on how it will react to new interactions.
If we look at Photo 2, we see what happens 10 minutes later when this cat decides he wants to move. We also see the broader social environment. Here the black-and-white cat has made the decision to get up. From a sitting position, he can either re-adjust his posture in the box, or he could leave the box. However, he is not making this decision in a social vacuum; another cat awaits the potential opportunity to use the box. Here's where the negotiated dance is so important.

Positioning keys

First, notice the similarity in body postures for these cats; they are almost mirror images of each other. Second, notice that both cats appear to be taking great pains to signal that neither is a threat. Their ears are forward, showing that they are alert. Their coats are smooth; they are partially hunched down without rapidly lashing tails, and they are both looking off into the distance. When you combine these behaviors with the fact that each cat is positioned so that each has his or her neck turned away from the other, which is a deferential behavior in all social species under examination, and that they are looking toward the floor, it becomes clear that neither cat wishes any overt challenge or contest to occur.

The black-and-white cat has full control of the box. The tabby has signaled that she, too, would like to use the box. These signals are not lost on the rest of the cat colony: Most of the cats are watching these two. In short, when the black-and-white cat signaled a potential change in posture and decision, the tabby asked for information about whether she could occupy the box.

When humans ask questions, they do so in words. We also often put ourselves in physical positions that get us more information. When dogs and cats ask questions, they do so by a series of behavioral changes that are sometimes provocative. Sentient species always act to gain information that will allow them to make decisions about how to use their time and other resources. If we wish to understand cat signaling, we must accept fully what this means.

Key observations