Understanding Feline Body Language
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2011
Sandra , VN, BA (Mod), PhD
WALTHAM® Centre for Pet Nutrition, Waltham-on-the-Wolds, Melton Mowbray, Leics, UK

This presentation introduces the evolutionary origin of some feline signals and the influence of domestication on the cat's signalling repertoire. Cats communicate using one of 4 signalling modes: auditory, olfactory, tactile or visual. It is the last of these that is most relevant to cat-human communication through body language which is the focus of this session.

Cats are relatively asocial animals compared to dogs. As a result they have a less well developed repertoire of signals making up their body language. Signals of defence or aggression tend to be very obvious but many other elements of feline body language are much subtler and can be easily missed.

The presentation will metaphorically 'take apart' the cat's body and examine the key areas which hold many of the clues to interpreting feline body language. Whiskers, eyes and ears all provide important information at the front end while tail position and movement provide additional information at the back end of the cat. In addition to these elements, body posture and vocalisations help us gain an insight into how the cat might be feeling and its welfare status. Through a series of images, the detail of body language will be identified and interpreted ranging from the classic tail-up position and vocalisation of the greeting cat to the flattened, tense, hunched appearance of the threatened cat.

The body language of two cats will be compared; one of which is relaxed and the other more threatened. The defensive response of the threatened cat is to protect itself from attack: it hunches up its body and withdraws, with its back in a corner so that it cannot be attacked from behind; it tucks in its tail; it flattens its body & lowers its head; the ears are slightly flattened; the eyes are slightly closed and the cat avoids looking directly at the person approaching; and the paws are set squarely on the resting surface; the cat is ready to flee. This defensive behaviour and body language minimises potential physical damage to the cat; by tucking in its body parts the cat reduces the risk of being injured by a real or imaginary threat. In contrast, the more relaxed cat has wide open eyes and is looking directly at the person approaching; its feet are off the resting surface, belly is exposed; tail is held slightly away from its body and whiskers are held out. Risking the exposure of vulnerable body parts such as the eyes and the belly indicates the cat's perception of threat is low.

Body language is an important behavioural indicator of a cat's welfare status. Its interpretation is particularly important when cats are confined as it enables their stress levels to be monitored and managed.

Recognising these signs helps us intervene when cats are distressed or failing to habituate over time. Managing stress is a vital part of recovery as:

 Psychological stress contributes to lower resistance to disease

 Caging is one of the main risk factors for idiopathic FLUTD

 If a cat is less fearful it tends to be easier to handle and friendlier making the vet or nurse's job easier, more enjoyable and safer.

 Taking better care of the cat means taking better care of your client

 Shelter cats are more likely to be successfully adopted if they are in a low stress environment

Cats vary enormously in how they behave when confined. Many cope well with the stress of an unfamiliar environment; they will spend some time exploring their cage and surroundings and before long settle down, groom and eventually sleep. However, other cats do not cope well. Their body language and behavior indicate they are severely distressed.

Cats exhibit stress behaviorally in 3 ways:

1.  Inhibition: A reduction in maintenance behaviour such as urination, defecation, grooming, feeding, approachability and mobility

2.  Disruption: manipulating their environment (cage contents) to create resources to manage stress (e.g., creating a physical barrier or hiding place which is important for habituation)

3.  Defensive behaviour: overt defensive behaviour which creates space between the cat and a perceived threat (e.g., hissing, spitting, vocalising, striking out and a flattened or 'frozen' (immobile) posture)

All cats show inhibition when first confined; it is the time taken to habituate to baseline behavior that varies across individuals. Therefore, it is vital to observe what the cat is not doing in addition to what it is doing. In severely stressed individuals, inhibition may persist for days or even weeks or months.

Cats can be broadly divided into two types in terms of how they respond to the stress of being caged: Active & Inactive.

1.  Active: these cats are typically at the front of the cage, visible, mobile and will try to escape particularly if the door is opened. They are often very vocal, particularly when people come near the cage, make lots of direct eye contact and often rear up at the front of the cage.

2.  Inactive: typically at the back of the cage, immobile, silent, 'frozen' and unresponsive. If approached these cats will typically flatten and withdraw their body without actually getting up and often hiss or growl. When night comes they often rearrange their cage contents to create a hiding spot into which they retreat.

The problem is that our attention is naturally drawn to the active responders. But it is the inactive responders who have the worst problems - both in absolute terms when they arrive and their rate of habituation. These individuals are often highly inhibited and may be showing very few, if any, of the other behavioural indicators of stress while we observe them. In these cats, we have to rely more on clues from their body language to assess their welfare status.

Being able to read the individual elements of feline body language is important but it is only when they are looked at together that they help us assess the cat's degree of relaxation or perception of threat. A composite scoring system has been developed which helps to monitor the rate of habituation over time in stressed cats. The score's strength is that it is validated against many individual measures associated with stress in confined cats but it is much quicker to use than making all the individual measures. At first the score may appear complicated and it does take a while to learn but once fully trained, the scorer can very quickly and reliably score a cat. Developing inter-observer reliability is crucial through training, practice and assessment for all individuals using the score. An illustrated cat ethogram (dictionary of behavioural terms) has been developed which helps ensure consistent terminology is used in reference to behavior, body posture and vocalisations.


Speaker Information
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Sandra McCune, VN, BA (Mod), PhD
WALTHAM® Centre for Pet Nutrition
Waltham-on-the-Wolds, Melton Mowbray
Leics, UK

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