Watching the cues will help unlock clues to feline communication

Feb 01, 2006

The third column in this continuing series on feline communication will focus on overall body posturing and the behavioral information it provides. Because no signaling system can be removed from the context of the entire animal, using what we have learned from observation of behavioral cues from felines' faces and tails can be extremely useful when we look at the cat in its relevant social context. For other feline signaling columns refer to the September and November 2005 issues of DVM Newsmagazine.

Photo 1: Notice the positioning of the cat's ears, and the dog is looking away from the cat's gaze. This cat is showing some signs of offensive aggression.
To begin this discussion, let's examine the cat's cues in Photo 1. Note she is hunched over a food dish yet still paying attention to the approaching dog. The dog is looking away from the cat's gaze and is actually in the process of turning away. The cat's ears are pulled a little up and back. Notice you can see both the top and inside of the left pinna, a signal that correlates with some amount of offensive aggression. At the same time, the cat appears hunched down and over a food bowl, a body posture we might associate with some degree of withdrawal except for the fact that food is involved. It's possible that this could be interpreted, in part, to a withdrawal from overall social interaction in order to eat. To truly understand a behavioral interaction, the interpreter must understand the context in which the behavioral cues are made. Sometimes the entire context is not clear, and the evaluator must be honest and know what it is that they cannot see or evaluate. Here, the food dish is a clear contextual clue.

Next, look at the cat's tail. It's slightly puffed, indicating a slight increase in reactivity. Notice the cat's tail is not lying flaccid on the floor; it's slightly elevated. Remember that still photos only represent a fraction of a second in what are likely to be complex and lengthy sequences. By learning about basic communication patterns and correlations among classes of behaviors, we can intuit that this cat is likely moving her tail a bit. If this is so, it's another sign of arousal, and one often signaling a willingness to move.

Remember there are benefits and drawbacks to evaluating behavior through still images. The single best behavioral tool is a video camera.

So far, we can deduce this cat is aroused, is willing to move and shows some evidence of offensive aggression. Onto the next clue; look at the cat's back. Careful examination of the cat shows piloerection down the dorsum. This is evidence of heightened arousal and reactivity, and suggests that such reactions are not focusing on friendly, inclusive behaviors. Piloerection always goes with behaviors signaling a decreased affiliative tendency.

Accordingly, the dog correctly interpreted that the decision to further approach this cat or her food dish carried a degree of risk that he was not willing to assume.

What's informative?