Feline posture: A visual dictionary

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Feline posture: A visual dictionary

In this interactive article, Dr. Elizabeth Colleran shares the subtle body language of frightened felines that you and your veterinary team should take note of.
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Nov 04, 2015

You may think you read cats like an open book, but are you really interpreting their body language correctly? How you describe your feline patients has a big impact on the way others interact with that patient. Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, DABVP (feline practice), shares definitions and body language diagrams as a visual guide for you and your team to use on the pages that follow. Roll over the images to see specific points about posture. (And don’t forget to turn to the last page to find out which words you should never use again to describe a cat.)

Useful descriptions for our feline friends*

Tense
• Sitting
• Normal respiration
• Tail maybe twitching, tense or down
• Eyes open, pupils normal
• Whiskers lateral or relaxed
• Quiet
• Resting or exploring

Tense: A central consideration in assessing cats for nursing care is pain. Pain can cause normally tractable cats to become more fearful of being touched or handled. Painful conditions may not be evident, particularly in older cats like this one.

Very tense
• Body lower behind than in front
• Normal respiration
• Hind legs bent underneath
• Tail close to body, tense, down or curled, maybe twitching
• Eyes wide open or pressed together, pupils partially dilated
• Ears erect and pointed toward perceived threat
• Whiskers lateral or forward
• Meowing or quiet
• Maybe trying to escape, alert or faking sleep

Very tense: At this stage of arousal, the cat is sitting up and breathing normally with its pupils partially dilated, ears pointed forward, intent gaze and whiskers up. A slower, gentle approach may decrease tension adequately to perform an examination. The next stage of arousal can quickly develop to a fearful state, precluding successful interaction. 

Very tense (not obvious): In this state, patients display rapid respiration. This cat’s head is up from the body and his eyes are wide open with his pupils dilated and ears erect and pointed toward the threat (me), accompanied by grumbling vocalization. 

Very tense: This cat’s ears are forward and pupils are dilated. His tail is wrapped, feet are firmly on floor and body is lower behind than the in front. 

Very tense: This cat’s whiskers are down, but his ears are erect and forward. The pupils are not dilated, but the cat’s face appears tense. This should alert anyone working with him that he is fearful, anxious or painful. 

Fearful stiff
• Sitting, standing, body lower behind than in front
• Increased respiration,
• Legs bent with feet close to body
• Tail curled in around body or down
• Little head movement
• Eyes wide open, pupils dilated
• Ears partially flattened
• Whiskers lateral or back
• Quiet or grumbling
• Maybe trying to escape

Fearful stiff: This cat’s blinking is a way to attempt to diffuse a fearful situation, but as this cat grows more fearful, the whiskers rise to a lateral position and the face becomes tense. 

Fearful stiff: This cat has a hunched up posture with his head drawn into his shoulders, his tail wrapped, his body tense, all four feet under him and his ears partially flattened. Fearful cats may have their whiskers lateral, forward or back. Very fearful cats will have them drawn back to protect them. This cat’s whiskers are lateral. Also note the tension in his face.

Very fearful
• Body crouched on top of all paws near to ground, maybe crawling or shaking
• Tail curled forward close to the body or down
• Head motionless
• Eyes fully opened, pupils fully dilated
• Ears fully flattened
• Whiskers up or back
• Plaintive meowing, yowling, growling or quiet
• Motionless or actively prowling

Terrorized
• Crouched directly on top of all fours, shaking
• Fast respiration
• Tail close to the body
• Head lower than body
• Motionless
• Eyes fully open, pupils fully dilated
• Ears fully flattened back on head
• Whiskers back
• Plaintive meowing, growling or yowling

Very fearful: The ears are down to protect them, and the pupils are dilated.

*Adapted from: Kessler MR, Turner DC. Stress and adaptation of cats (Fells silvestris catus) housed singly, in pairs and in groups in boarding catteries. Anim Welfare 1997;6(3):243-254; and Bradshaw JWS, Casey RA, Brown SL. The behavior of the domestic cat. 2nd ed. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI, 2013. 

Never use these words to describe a cat again

Fractious, evil, naughty, angry, dangerous, ticked off, obnoxious, bad, scary, menacing, terrible, mad, raging, wrathful … You get the picture. Words that either inflame us or embarrass owners must be avoided. We must always be aware of the impact of our emotions on the emotional state of our patients. The tension or fear we exhibit in addition to that experienced by owners if they are present contributes to the emotional arousal of our patients. Our calm demeanor helps create a peaceful and successful encounter.

More information can be found in American Association of Feline Practitioners’ guidelines: 2012 Feline-Friendly Nursing Care, 2011 Feline-Friendly Handling and 2015 Pain Management; and Bradshaw JWS, Casey RA, Brown SL. The behavior of the domestic cat. 2nd ed. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI, 2013.