by David F. Kramer
Humankind’s Long History of Watching Cats for Amusement
Since the first cats were domesticated some 9,500 years ago, they have been an endless source of entertainment for the people they’ve kept. Not only do they warm our laps and sooth us with some serious purring, they offer us a unique front row seat to observe animal behavior as it naturally happens.
In the past, we might have regaled our family and friends around the nightly campfire with amusing tales about our cats’ exploits; now we all sit around the world’s biggest campfire—the internet—and share these funny behaviors in the living color of video.
At the time of this writing, there are about two million cat videos on YouTube alone, which have garnered a staggering 24.6 billion views. Each day, about 12,000 kitty vids are watched; enjoyed on the down-low during work hours, shared on social media channels, and emailed to people who probably don’t like them as much as you do. Believe it or not, cat videos have had a long and storied history, beginning with “Boxing Cats,” a film from 1894 shot by none other than Thomas Edison.
Discovering the Mystery of the Pre-Attack Butt Wiggle
Today, we’ll focus on an impossibly cute kitty behavior: the pre-pounce butt wiggle. Yes, just preceding the seriousness and deadly accuracy of a hunting feline’s pounce is a little shaking of what their mamas gave them. And it’s not just housecats, many big cats like lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars sometimes engage in a little bit of getting down before striking out. But why?
As is the case with so many other odd animal behaviors, theories abound, but the truth behind them is known only to cats, and they’re in no hurry to, well—let themselves out of the proverbial bag. Some veterinarians believe that the butt wiggle is a physical preparation that ensures a successful pounce—and in turn, a needed meal.
“Basically, when a cat pounces, they need to propel themselves using both hind limbs for full takeoff. Usually when a cat walks, they alternate their back legs, but when jumping or pouncing they use both together,” says Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM.
Cats might also be wiggling to test the strength of the ground before they leap. If a cat leaps from loose or rocky ground, the results can range from the comical to the downright deadly, such as a fall from a tree or hillside. A few tentative steps to give themselves some purchase in the soil can make or break a successful leap.
“When a cat wants to pounce on something, they wiggle their hind ends back and forth to check their balance. It helps them determine if they have solid ground under their hind legs to pounce and also helps them determine if they will make the jump distance safely. I haven't seen much evidence of wild cats doing this, but it is reported that it is an innate behavior, so I am guessing that it occurs—just at a much lesser degree than in house cats,” says Grzyb.
Or, is the wiggle a matter of planning?
“It seems they are preparing their muscles for a big movement as they strategize—with tiny movements of their feet and hind limbs—much like a golfer does when setting up at a tee or a batter up to bat,” says Dr. Meghan E. Herron, DVM.
Marilyn Krieger, aka “The Cat Coach,” is a certified cat behavior consultant, author, and blogger from San Francisco, CA. Krieger does in person and Skype consultations, talks, and workshops for cat owners on the idiosyncrasies of feline behavior and how to deal with them. She is also unsure about the exact nature of the butt wiggle, but she has some interesting theories.
“When cats hunt and play, there is a release of dopamine into their system, and that may influence it a little,” says Krieger.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by neurons in the brain. It plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior, offering the pleasurable sensations we associate with certain activities. Many addictive drugs and substances can increase these levels, and indeed also play a key role in addiction itself.
“[The butt wiggle] may offer a little release of energy to hone that attack. Once an animal has caught its prey, the dopamine stops firing,” says Krieger.
Is the Wiggle Instinctive or Learned?
Animal experts are unsure whether this is a learned or innate behavior, but most factors seem to point to a little bit of both. While it seems innocent, kitten and cat play is an extension of the hunt—and a constant source of training for real world activities.
“When kittens play, they’re learning and honing their skills,” says Krieger. “Not only are they getting practice, but it tones their muscles.”
While it may look a little comical, we humans do our fair share of wiggling as well. Baseball players, golfers, and sprinters routinely shake out their muscles before they begin; warm-up exercises are a critical part of working out or playing a sport. All of this business might just be the bipedal version of the kitty butt-wiggle.
“I really think the behavior is pretty simple. One purpose is flexing, getting those muscles warmed up and helping to focus and hone in on their prey. There’s also probably a little excitement or nervous energy at work there too,” says Krieger.
So, in the immortal words of Kern and Hammerstein—fish got to swim, birds got to fly, and cats… well, they’ve got to wiggle!
This article was verified for accuracy by Dr. Gatie Grzyb, DVM