Nancyeclark's Blog

Chasing Tails


It twitches…he watches with huge eyes…tensed, waiting to pounce. It stops, holds still for a moment then very slowly starts to sway…back and forth…a white waving flag…he watches, waits for just the right moment…then attacks, grabs it, bites it, kills it. Relaxes and blinks at me. There is satisfaction on his wee face. Then…it moves again…just a small jerk…and the stalking begins again. It goes on for ages…and it never dies…he just tires of the game eventually and his eyes close and he snuggles in for a nap.

As I sit here watching Fingal on my lap chasing his tail and chuckling over his antics…it gets me wondering about body image/body awareness/body schema and something called proprioception…sometimes known as kinesthesia, and also about imagination and play. I watch a kitten with its tail…and it is as if the tail is a separate entity…not under their control…it seems at times to belong to someone else…to be a creature unknown to them. That is where proprioception begins to wander through my brain.

Darla, Fingal,Finlay & Fiona (57)

As I understand it, there are 3 main types of senses. Exteroceptive senses; the ones that keep us conscious of the outside world and its interaction with us (skin, eyes, ears etc), interoceptive senses; with which we perceive pain in and movement of internal organs, and the proprioceptive senses. Proprioception is a sensory system that provides feedback solely on the status of our bodies. Proprioception is from the Latin proprius, meaning "one’s own" and perception. It is defined as your sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of your own body. It is the sense that lets us know whether our bodies are moving appropriately with the effort we are making, as well as where the various parts of our body are located in relation to each other and to space. Proprioception and kinesthesia are sometimes used interchangeably, but are really quite different. Kinesthesia has more to do with motion and can exist where proprioception is lost.  For example, an inner ear infection could disturb our sense of balance which would erode our proprioceptive sense, but not our kinesthetic sense. You would be able to walk, but only by using sight to maintain your balance; you would be unable to walk with your eyes closed.

Kinesthesia is a key component in muscle memory and hand-eye coordination, and training can improve it. Your ability to swing a golf club or a bat, to catch a ball or dance the macarena or a pas de deux, needs a finely tuned sense of the position of your body and all its joints and limbs in relation to themselves, each other and in space. All this needs to become automatic (through training/repetition) to let us concentrate on the other aspects of performance; seeing/knowing  where other people or objects are, maintaining focus and motivation, expressing the emotion and gaiety of dance. Without the relevant integration of proprioceptive signals, as an artist, I  wouldn’t be able to put paint to paper without watching my hand as it moves the brush; it would be impossible to drive a car because you would not be able to steer or use the foot pedals while looking at the road ahead. You would not even be able to walk without watching where you put your feet.

This gets me thinking about my mother, who had undiagnosed and untreated diabetes for several years, allowing diabetic neuropathy to get a good strong foothold before she began treatment, and so she now has very little feeling in her feet (apart from the pain of the neuropathy), and uses sight to know where her feet are and to enable her to walk. She has trouble walking in the dark. She has also had 4 strokes, leaving her with impaired balance, and uses, again, sight, to help her maintain her equilibrium, also more difficult for her in low light. Her fingers have little sensation left and without looking at what she is doing, she often drops things because she cannot tell where her fingers are. The sense of where our bodies are and how we are moving them and attached to them is a body awareness of very precious, no, priceless value. Neurologist Oliver Sacks is one of the many who have written about loss of this awareness in his patients and in himself too…in the book “A Leg to Stand On”, which raises “profound questions of the physical basis of identity.”

This also gets me thinking about our little cat, Belle, who suffered head, neck and chest trauma at 6 weeks of age and now has neurological deficits, and physical ones, as a result. She has never grown properly, at almost 2 she is the size of a 14 week old…her legs are small and thin and not as well muscled as they should be although her body is quite stocky (partly our fault for letting her get a tad heavy). Belle’s face and head are a mix of the kitten and the adult…her head is quite small…her eyes in relation…large. She has kidney issues and has never matured sexually. She has also been left with tremors which worsen as she relaxes. Watching her recover from her injuries as a kitten was fascinating…she had to learn how to do things that came quite naturally to her littermates…running…playing…jumping. She learned to do most of these things quite well…but you could see her think about them before doing them, and learn from each mistake…unlike the others who just did those things almost without thought or effort. Her muscle tremors make her move differently from other cats, and she must cope with her body twitching even more as she relaxes…I wish I knew more about how she feels about all this. And how she views herself. I know she is not as playful or as physical as other cats…and I believe the trauma affected her not only neurologically in terms of her growth and physical effects, but in her sense of imagination and play. She never became a truly active and playful kitten. She does however grab the biggest toy she can find and carry it around the house yelling and calling and occasionally will play with Cheerios on the floor…still with coordination deficits that tire her quickly. What she thinks of all this I do not know…but she is a growly girl, impatient with others, protective of her space and food and does not like being handled much, although curled in my lap is where you will often find her.

Our older cat,Tucker, has what I and our vet think is Feline Hyperesthesia or Rippling Skin Disorder. His back will start to move and twitch and ripple of its own accord…he will lick hard at it, snap and bite at it and is often chased by it around the house. He is getting crankier with it each day. As I watch him react to it, I wonder what it feels like and I wonder about how he seems to think he can run away from his own body and its movement and discomfort. Luckily, he has not done damage to himself yet, as some cats with the disorder do…we are trying treatment before it gets to that stage.

Proprioception is awareness of one’s body in space, really. Where it is and what it is doing or not doing. The feeling of wholeness and connection in the physical. Sitting here, I do not have to look to know where my toes are, or what is happening within and without my body….and I know how lucky I am. I do wonder what ‘Phantom Limb” must be like…for those amputees who can still feel their missing limbs…and I wonder what it must be like to have all your body…but lose touch with it. There are many different causes of that loss; MS, viral infections, tumours, vitamin deficiencies…I wonder about people with proprioceptive losses and then about animals and their body map and how to tell when their schema is not working properly.

Placing reflexes are used to test human neurological responses and the same goes for animals. There are two frequently used placing reflexes; tests which allow your vet to assess the proprioceptive abilities of cats (and dogs) in particular. The first test is to lift an animal and bring the anterior/dorsal (front/top) surface of a paw up to a table edge. Normally a cat will position its paw onto the surface properly. The second (sometimes called the proprioceptive positioning reflex)  is when the dorsal, or top surface, of the paw is placed onto a surface; a healthy animal will flick it back up to be in the normal position. If it cannot do this it implies that there is either a motor deficit or damage to the sensory pathways for proprioception, or damage to the centres of the brain which would normally integrate this response. “These centres would include the cerebellum, and possibly portions of the cerebrum. The evidence for the involvement of the cerebellum comes, in part, from the fact that cerebellar ataxia can lead to a loss of this particular reflex. The reflex is sometimes referred to as a "response", allowing for possible conscious cerebral influence of the action.” (with apologies to Wiki)

So, what do cats think and feel? Why do they chase their tails? How do they see it and understand it? I understand the fascination with another cat’s tail…but how can you lie there and all of a sudden see your own tail as a separate thing…a toy you can chase in circles or just attack and pounce on when it twitches?

I have looked on the interweb and found some interesting answers to the question of why cats chase their tails…

It is OCD

it is worms in their butts

it can cause epilepsy

it is a form of epilepsy

it is very bad

These are some of the reasons offered for tail chasing in cats.

First…let me say…I am not a vet…I am just voicing an opinion as a cat person of more than 40 years experience.

I don’t believe any of the above are the answer as to why my little 11 week old chases his tail…but they may have validity if you have a cat that chases its tail too much.

If it were an OCD related behaviour in Fingal, surely it would be a more constant, possibly frenetic behaviour, like OCD in people. As I suffer from OCD myself…checking, counting, repetition etc…it doesn’t seem to me an OCD-like behaviour. Worms my cats do not have…and they tend to lick their anal region (butts) as opposed to chasing their tails. I am pretty sure you cannot cause epilepsy that way, but I believe it could be part of a complex partial seizure in a cat. Unless it is damaging to the cat’s tail or to its psyche or it becomes a constant behaviour…it probably is not very bad.

What I believe you have to do is be aware of your cat and its behaviour…and demeanour…is the chasing constant? or just occasional? Is there biting or damage to the tail or skin? If there is, get your cat checked out by a vet. There is something called Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome or Rippling Skin Disorder that can cause a cat to attack itself…tail, skin etc. and pull out fur and damage itself…this is serious and needs a vet. There are other medical reasons for tail chasing…skin issues, tail injuries etc. The important thing is to know your cat’s behaviour…you can often tell if it is a happy chase or the kind caused by something bothering the skin or tail. You have to know that kittens will chase their tails occasionally from the time they are old enough to see and reach their tails and that adult cats will also chase their tails occasionally…if it becomes an obsessive or harmful behaviour or if your cat is showing signs of discomfort or if it is something he/she has never done before…you would need to be concerned.  But a cat’s playful, happy enjoyment and fascination with its tail, and chasing it or playing with it is usually harmless fun and a treasured event in our house, because kittens do seem to grow out of it…as they get older it appears to become less fun for them and we only see a tail chase infrequently.

Cats may see things, including their own bodies, differently from us…but when it comes to imagination…I am not sure they are much different from me or you. Scientists, theorists, psychologists…in fact most of the ists…seem to think that imagination and the ability to pretend is limited to humans and possibly some primates. Ask any cat owner…and the anecdotal evidence of imagination and pretense in cats is overwhelming. I’m not talking just about the pretend hunting they do to hone their skills…but the knocking down of things on the shelf above the bed when deciding it is awake time and breakfast time and pretending they have nothing to do with the falling items or even trying to blame it on another cat. There is the “I meant to do that” pretend, when a “gymnastic” event goes horribly wrong or they somehow embarrass themselves. Pretending not to know their best friend and littermate even though they were just having a lickfest. Not realizing, or pretending not to notice when hiding from you, that the only thing actually hidden is their shoulders and head. Pretending (or hoping) they are a size 2 when truly a 16, because the box they are attempting to sleep in is smaller than their butts. Our poor mum who has never lost her baby weight, indulges in this fantasy quite often.

Cats would seem to have imaginations and they do love to play…as kittens and as adults. Play is an important interaction with your cat…because interactive playing lets your cat practice his hunting skills: seeing and defining the target, practicing the stealth needed to approach, the pounce, and the satisfaction gained from the kill. Whether it is your toes under the covers, a string on a stick or a toy mouse…the hunt is a vital component in play for and with your cat. Playing can help your cat maintain a healthy weight by exercising under-used muscle and brain, and it can be a very positive way for your cat to release lots of negative energy and even aggression.

Interactive play strengthens the bond between you and your cat, and play can help a shy or timid cat gain confidence in itself and in you. A vigorous play session is a good way to ease your cat’s transition into a new home. You can use play to help introduce cats to each other and soften the newness and strangeness between them.

For cats in shelters and rescues…playtime can be vital in maintaining mental health and well-being and helps to socialize them and strengthen the animal/human bond.

So from musing about body schema to musing about crinkle balls and toes under blankets…I have realized that cats, although I cannot talk to them, still have the ability to make me think, and learn. They also make me wish I had my own tail to chase.

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