by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Having looked at various parts of the cat we are left with the body itself; posture is an important visual sign and usually seen first.
Cats can stand, sit, crouch, stalk, lie down or roll over. In choosing their position cats take into account various factors including the environment, temperature, other animals or people, and their state of mind – relaxed, aroused, anxious, stressed, scared, defensive, frightened, angry, or threatened.
Looking at each position and its variants may help to quickly gauge the cat’s mood and determine if we can approach, interact from a distance, or rather leave them alone.
Standing is a safe posture as it allows for any other posture or movement without restriction. It also allows for a moment of pause to consider the current circumstances and make a decision on what to do next, including walking towards or away from any incident.
There is more to standing than just 4 paws on the ground. The cat can be relaxed with a soft body, curiously alert with more control over muscles and paw placement, anxious or stressed with more tension visible in stiff legs, fearful or aggressive with arched back and all fur raised to present a formidable appearance. An arched back with flat fur and tail up is a welcoming signal.
Sitting can be relaxing in a sunny spot, observing prey, waiting for dinner to arrive, or it can be the result of moving after lying and a time to consider the next move. This position can also be relaxed or tense, with the option of standing up or jumping. The tail position can help to gauge the mood and intention.
Crouching usually has some tension as the cat is focusing on something; a toy, prey or a threat. Again, fur can be raised, and the tail will indicate the level of arousal, either pleasant or fearful. Paws are under the body, front paws slightly extended, to give the best leverage for a pounce, attack or other action that may be needed.
Curling up or crouching is also a protective posture when a cat is injured or ill or otherwise in pain.
A low crouch, or slowly slinking along paw by paw, can be part of a hunting expedition or a slow escape from a stressful situation which he cannot control. It can also be an attempt to become invisible and non-threatening.
Lying down can have many meanings too. It can be a relaxed position, paws carefully tucked under, observing the surroundings, or on her side, stretched out in a warm spot. In cold environments she will curl up to conserve body heat but still be relaxed. Lying very still, head down, can be a sign of submissiveness in order not to provoke a threat.
Lying on her side can also be the first level of threat to an adversary. Other signals will include tail lashing, half-closed eyes, ears back and vocalisation. She is not able or not willing to give in, and is preparing to fight. The next level is to roll onto her back; now she has front paws available to hold an attacker, back claws to rake through fur and flesh, and teeth for biting. Only the brave, ignorant, or desperate will attack a cat on its back!
A relaxed cat looks soft and gentle, at one with her surroundings. As stress levels increase so does tension in the muscles, stiffness in the legs and body, riding movement, arched back, raised fur, claws become extended.
Every posture can have multiple meanings; although it is probably the easiest way to begin understanding your cat, all other signals need to be considered as this is only one part of the total message.