Most people nowadays — even those without pets — are familiar with a large variety of strange animal behaviors due to the popularity of internet videos that star our four-legged friends. Zoomies, the bootie-wiggle, howling, chattering, the loaf, and the elusive full sploot can be adorable actions that garner millions of clicks on websites like Facebook and YouTube.
But why do our pets engage in these behaviors? Do they hold a greater meaning than making us laugh? What can we learn about our pets by observing their behavior?
- Play and Play Fights
“Play” is a difficult behavior to clearly define, since it comes in so many different forms. Even biologists struggle with its definition, but they have a pretty good understanding of the reason behind “play.” In nature, it is the strong that survive — and while our pets can often seem very distinct from their wild ancestors, many of their instincts remain. Puppies and kittens play as a way to practice and strengthen skills that were once necessary for their survival: hunting for food, fighting for territory, and establishing their role in the social hierarchy.
Play fights help siblings work on their coordination, learn how to defend their weak points, and build muscle before they enter adulthood and experience real stakes. Adults can still benefit from the practice that routine play provides but may not engage in play quite as much as their younger counterparts. Your pet is most likely not consciously aware of these benefits of play and simply follows the instinct because it is fun!
- The Play Bow
Dogs are usually much more social creatures than cats, and a good play fight is an excellent way for two dogs to gauge physical strength, social standing, and general personality of one another without the risk of true combat. Because play fights are so useful to canines, biologists discovered they have a specific gesture that conveys intention to play — the play bow.
Dog owners may recognize it by its description, though it is subtle enough they may have never considered the motion’s true meaning. In the play bow, the dog will face the other with its front half lowered, sometimes with elbows on the ground, and its rump in the air. If the other dog agrees to play, it will quickly and often subtly return the bow. This creates an agreement between the two canines that they will not willingly hurt the other during their roughhousing, and biologists have observed that dogs who break this agreement are often shunned from play by the rest of their pack.
If you are a dog owner, keep an eye out for the play bow and impress your friends with your cool dog knowledge!
- The Bootie-Wiggle
A cat exhibits many unique behaviors when it is stalking prey. Their pupils dilate, allowing in more light and enhancing their ability to lock on to their target.
They move slowly and in bursts between long pauses, allowing their prey to become habituated to their presence and creating a false sense of security. But by far the most interesting and seemingly nonsensical stalking behavior is the hilarious Bootie-Wiggle. The cat will shift its weight quickly from one hind foot to the other, noticeably shifting its weight from side to side and creating an adorable shake of its rump.
Cats often do this right before they pounce, though its obviousness seems to detract from the intense stealth usually exhibited moments before. Though it may appear ridiculous to us, the Bootie-Wiggle allows cats to test the stability of their terrain and adjust their footing if needed. The cat is preparing to push off their hind-legs with a great deal of force, and if the ground under their feet is not stable, their feet could fly out from under them and cause them to faceplant straight into the dirt.
The Bootie-Wiggle ensures the cat is able to make the pounce and successfully close the distance to its target.
Another hunting behavior common in cats is chattering (also known as chittering). Usually, this behavior is not observed in cats actively stalking their prey — it is more common to see chattering in cats that are blocked from attacking their potential target. Often, the cat is sitting behind a window watching birds or squirrels when it begins making quick, high-pitched squeaks that accompany rapid opening and closing of the mouth — chattering.
While the jury is still out on the exact reason behind this behavior, biologists have put out a few interesting hypotheses. Chattering may be an intentional expression of frustration due to the cat’s inability to access its intended prey, though this is unlikely. If this were the case, cats would chatter any time food is withheld. It is more likely that chattering is an unintentional action caused by a buildup of hormones used for hunting, like adrenaline, when the hunting instinct cannot be followed through.
Other biologists have posited that chittering cats may be attempting to lure the prey closer by producing higher-pitched chirps like those made by rodents and birds. Either way, if your cat begins staring at the ceiling and chattering, you can be sure you have a critter of some kind that has caught its attention!
Both cats and dogs experience “the zoomies,” much to the delight — or sometimes frustration — of their owners. When a pet has the zoomies, they display a sudden burst of energy and often race from one end of the house or yard to the other for several minutes.
While zoomies are usually brief, having your dog or cat tearing through the house at 3 a.m. can be taxing to owners with an early work schedule. Most pet experts agree that these bursts of energy (also called Frenetic Random Activity Periods) are usually to let off excess energy that has been stored over a period of time.
Pets may start zooming to burn off energy after spending some time in a crate, after sleeping the majority of the day (common in cats), after staying calm under stress (such as after a trip to the vet or the groomer). Both cats and dogs had wild ancestors that relied on bursts of energy in order to hunt and catch prey.
Encourage your pet to let that energy out before you head to bed, either by chasing a ball or a laser pointer, so that you can both enjoy the zoomie time!
- The Loaf
There is a joke that exists on the internet that cats are liquid rather than solid matter — they can contort their bodies to fit in any number of containers or positions. They can be observed spilling over the tops of boxes or purses (“if I fits, I sits”), but one of the internet’s favorite cat postures is “the loaf.” When “loafing,” cats tuck their legs, paws, and tail underneath them until they resemble the rounded outline of a loaf of bread. A loafing cat is usually a comfortable cat – when a cat’s legs are tucked and their paws folded, it is more difficult to quickly bolt away from danger or strike out with their claws than when their paws are free. Cats loaf because they feel safe to do so. Loafing also allows cats to retain their body heat, as it lessens their surface area exposed to the air. It is fairly common for cat owners to observe their cats sunbathing due to their love of warmth, so arranging itself as a loaf makes a lot of sense, provided that the cat feels safe and secure enough in its surroundings to do so. Although the loaf is usually a position of comfort, attempting to squeeze itself into a tight ball could be a sign of discomfort (pain or cold), and if coupled with lack of appetite might warrant a check-up with your veterinarian.
- The Full Sploot
Just like with cats, the internet has become obsessed with one dog posture above the others — the “sploot.” When a dog sploots, it lays flat on its tummy with its back legs bent to allow its paw pads to face the sky. Corgis are the most famous splooters, but the sploot position can be found in any breed, so long as the individual is flexible enough for the stretch.
Dogs can enjoy the sploot for a couple of different reasons. First, it offers a great stretch for dogs flexible enough to take the position. Both dogs and cats can enjoy a great stretch, just like many humans (yoga, anyone?), and stretching can often help relax the body.
Dogs can also have a favorite place to sploot. Perhaps you find them splooting more often on the tile of your kitchen floor rather than in your carpeted bedroom, or vice-versa. Splooting allows contact of your dog’s full tummy with the floor, in a way not possible when their legs are tucked underneath. Your dog may be using splooting to cool down or warm up their bellies, as heat transfer is greatly improved in this position.
Similarly, if your dog sploots while crawling, they may be giving themselves a great belly-scratch, since their entire belly can touch the floor at once. If you find your dog doing this frequently, it may be good to get them checked out for possible fleas or skin allergies. Otherwise, enjoy those goofy sploots!
- The Head-Tilt
A continuously or chronically tilted head can be cause for alarm and indicates a medical condition, but the adorable head tilt your dog does when listening to an interesting sound is only cause for “awwww’s.” This behavior can also be observed in your dog’s wild cousins, especially in foxes when they hunt rodents beneath the snow in winter.
Dogs and foxes do the head-tilt for the same reason — they are trying to better hear and understand/locate the sound. Hearing a sound with its head turned at different angles allows your pet to get a better sense of the source’s exact location. You can also experience this by closing your eyes and having a friend whistle from a random location around you. Changing the angle of your head a few times may help you pinpoint your friend’s location more accurately.
Even though your pet can likely tell that it is you (and not potential prey) whistling or blowing that raspberry, the instinct to identify and locate uncommon sounds may drive your pet to try and hear the sound from different angles. It has also been hypothesized by some biologists that dogs may also tilt their heads in response to our strange sounds in order to better see our faces so they can understand the context in which these sounds are produced — and how they should respond.
It is also possible that dogs perform the head tilt more readily than their wild counterparts because they learn as puppies that we respond positively to their curious head-tilt; after all, we are likely to reward behaviors we find adorable.
We hope you have enjoyed our delve into common pet behaviors. Hopefully, understanding the reasons behind these common behaviors will help you feel more connected with your pet and enhance the quality of your bond with your companion.
Check out some of our past stories from or about Coffey’s Veterinary Center: