Feline communication: Listen to the tail's tale

Nov 01, 2005

The second column in this series on feline communication will focus on the information provided by cat tails. While no signaling system can be removed from the context of the entire animal and correctly interpreted, it can be very useful to look at what information can be communicated by each body part involved in signaling. Then, we can take these observations and look for congruence or lack of it between other signaling systems (e.g., the eyes, voice, body, etc.) The only system closed to our understanding, for now, is the olfactory.

The easiest signal for clients to recognize is the one shown in Photo 1, the "wraparound" tail. Cats that wrap their tail around their feet could be cold, but the rest of the body's signals would have to be in agreement for this conclusion to be reached. Cold cats crouch down, fold their ears down, bury their nose, wrap their tail around the entire body, and become as small as possible. The cat in Photo 1 is upright, has ears up, and has exposed his belly to the air. Ears and bellies are places where heat loss is great. This cat is not cold.

Photos 1: The tail wrap combined with facial and paw postures indicate this cat's desire for more distance.
Instead, this cat is closed to interactions from those that approach. In this case we have as broader context provided by the cat's facial expression and paw. The cat is resting his weight on his one forelimb while the other is raised as if to swat. The role for raised limbs and swatting in changing interactions with other animals have not been investigated in cats, but the widely held belief is that this is a distance-increasing signal that is meant to discourage interaction. The information obtained from paw posture certainly confirms this theory judging by the tail position. The cat's ears are also moving back, and he is staring. Both of these are facial signals that can correlate with agonistic interactions.

Photos 2: The tail wrap combined with facial and paw postures indicate this cat's desire for more distance.
In Photo 2 we see the focus of the cat's angst: a dog who, based on her head position and facial expression, is becoming convinced that the cat really doesn't desire her attentions. This photo is a terrific example of how multiple signaling systems can tell you not only what an animal is "saying" but how seriously they are communicating it. When all of the systems agree, there is little hesitancy in the animal's response.

Photo 3: These cats signal a lack of willingness to interact, evidenced by their tail behaviors and obvious spacing.
In Photo 3, we see a series of cats all of whom have their tails either wrapped or tucked. While not actively fighting, none of these cats are engaged in active interaction. Here, the tail has functioned in a series of signals that not only indicated a lack of willingness to interact, but may have also functioned in the spacing of the animals.