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Feline uncertain? Cats do give clues if the fur’s about to fly, study finds | Animal behaviour

When cats get together, it can be hard to tell the difference between a rough game and a full blown fight. Now researchers say they have deciphered feline behavior to help owners determine when fur is about to fly.

Dr. Noema Gaidos-Kmetsova, first author of the study at the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Kosice, Slovakia, and a cat owner herself, said understanding feline interactions can be difficult.

“Many owners ask themselves the question, do these cats play, fight? Or what is really going on? We found that there was actually very little scientific evidence to help us answer this question, so we decided to go for it and study interactions between cats,” she said.

In an article for Scientific Reports, Gaidosh-Kmetsova and colleagues describe how they studied the behavior of 105 pairs of interacting domestic cats recorded on videos collected on YouTube. They were also advertised for cat owners.

The researchers randomly selected 30% of the videos and analyzed the cat’s actions to identify six behavioral categories, including fighting, chasing, vocalizing, and immobile postures such as crouching. Each of the cats in the full sample was then rated in these categories.

When the team looked at the frequency and duration of each of these six behavioral categories in the different cats they found, they split into three groups.

The team then reviewed all 105 videos of 210 cats, rating each interaction as playful, aggressive, or in between.

The team found that the three behavior clusters found during the initial analysis overlapped with the classification of interactions made by the experts, suggesting that certain patterns or types of feline behavior may indicate whether cats had play interactions or fights.

“When cats are young and when they are fighting rather than singing, they are more likely to play,” the team wrote. But when there are long inactive pauses, vocalizations and chasing, cats can be in the middle of a fight.

Intermediate behaviors, the authors write, were associated with long-term interactivity and included features associated with both play interactions such as prone or jumping, and aggressive behaviors such as arching the back and retreating.

However, Gaidosh-Kmetsova said that even fighting can take place in both positive and negative contexts, so it was important to look at the overall pattern of behavior and whether both cats show them. For example, if it was about claws and howling, fighting would hardly be a sign of play; and the game was also unlikely if only one cat tried to participate in the fight.

Gaidosh-Kmetsova said it’s important to be aware that game interaction can turn into an intermediate or combat situation. “It’s very, very dynamic,” she said. “When cats become noisy and avoid physical contact [for example] take inactive breaks during communication, [situation] can change to become an agonist.”

Gaidosh-Kmetsova added that the study found that cats’ interactions weren’t always a binary choice between play and fight, but their behavior could provide useful clues. “Maybe ask yourself if they are playing, fighting or something in between,” she said.

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