Ahh. The posterior prelude of the pounce. Otherwise known as that butt wiggle behavior cats tend to do before they leap onto another animal, a toy, or perhaps your camera…
And while this cat behavior certainly is adorable, it also is observed (albeit somewhat differently) in their non-domesticated cousins.
(Tiger Cub’s First Prey, BBC Earth)
Did you catch it?
[If you click to watch the David Attenborough video the ‘wiggle’ is about 30 seconds in.]
The tiger’s wiggle is certainly more a subtle shifting of weight than the exaggerated movement you see in the first gif, but the applications are similar. This tiger, who has just stalked as close as possible to her prey (a fawn) is just about to pounce and leap after her quarry. What we see in the above gif is the tiger repositioning her back legs, gathering her weight underneath her, and grinding her claws into the ground - that way when she can leap off with the greatest amount of power towards her mark. Domestic cats employ the same general behavior in effort to establish balance, leverage, and power before pursuing their victim.
Many felids employ a combination of mobile (moving through an area and stopping when attracted by potential prey) and stationary (the lie-in-wait and ambushing) strategies, as to what best suits the environmental conditions and the prey being pursued. (x) In most cases, the prey at hand (or paw as it may be) is on the look out for any visual, audible, or olfactory signs of potential predators, so stealth is of the utmost importance in hunting success. Every move has to be done with the utmost care or the prey could be - and often is - alerted to the predator’s presence. So what we see as an adorable butt wiggle is really the transition between stalking and attack.
Of course, a hunting cat (of any size) won’t have quite the obvious transition period as what we see in the first gif above, but something more like this instead.
This suggests that domestic cats may indeed modify this predatory behavior and over exaggerate it in the context of play. Play fighting is seen in a number of species and I’m sure many of you have witnessed or engaged in play fighting behavior with your own pets. You find very different body postures, vocalizations, and facial expressions when observing play versus true fighting / hunting behavior. There is also the ‘check in’ where specific play communication signals are given which notify the participants that play is still occurring. Or in cases where play has gotten too rough / unpleasurable for a participant, these signals are not given and stop or distress signals may be witnessed instead. (x, x)
I have not found any peer reviewed research regarding possible modifications of this particular pre-pounce wiggle in the context of play, and it is generally lumped together with the whole stalk-and-pounce(/attack) behavior in the literature, but I hope the sources I included below help shed some more light on this topic. And as always, if you have any questions please never hesitate to ask me.
References and Additional Reading:
BBC Earth. “Tiger Cub’s First Prey - David Attenborough…" Youtube.com. March 23, 2013. Video. Retrieved 2/9/14/ (x)
Bekoff, Marc. “Social play and play-soliciting by infant canids." American Zoologist 14.1 (1974): 323-340. (x)
Biben, Maxeen. “Predation and predatory play behaviour of domestic cats."Animal Behaviour 27 (1979): 81-94. (x)
Branch, Lyn C. “Observations of predation by pumas and Geoffroy’s cats on the plains vizcacha in semi-arid scrub of central Argentina." Mammalia 59.1 (1995): 152-155. (x)
Murray, Dennis L., et al. “Hunting behaviour of a sympatric felid and canid in relation to vegetative cover." Animal Behaviour 50.5 (1995): 1203-1210. (x)
Turner DC, Bateson P, eds. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behavior, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000. (x, x)
West, Meredith. “Social play in the domestic cat." American Zoologist 14.1 (1974): 427-436. (x)