Why does my cat… slink around?

If you’ve spent time around cats, you’ve probably observed one moving stealthily across the ground with her belly low and tail tucked down. People who don’t understand cat behavior might think this is an example of cats acting “sneaky.” In fact, this quiet, stealthy way of movement is typical of a cat trying to avoid attracting attention for a specific reason. A couple of reasons a cat might slink:

The cat is fearful
A fearful cat may try to intimidate an opponent by looking larger. This is accomplished by turning sideways and puffing up his fur (picture the stereotypical “Halloween cat”). An opposing strategy is to avoid attracting attention by becoming as small as possible: legs flexed, belly to the ground, ears back, tail down, moving slowly.

The cat is hunting
Cats that are stalking prey need to move silently and stealthily to avoid detection. Interestingly, while this creeping gait is perfect for hunting their unsuspecting prey, it’s not an energy-efficient way to move. A study published in PLoS One concluded that while the cat’s stealthy gait with a low center mass is not mechanically efficient, the cat gains stability and sure-footedness with this kind of gait and posture, suggesting “… the possibility of an evolutionary tradeoff between energetic efficiency and stealthy locomotion.” In other words, they trade energy efficiency for the ability to move stealthily. In contrast dogs, who usually travel over longer distances, have a more stiff-legged gait. The rise and fall of the center mass associated with this type of gait provides them with up to 70 percent energy return.

Of course, these aren’t the only reasons a cat might slink around. I often see my own cats playing, with one crouched low “stalking” the other one, or even sneaking up on one of their favorite toys.

Because cats have this ability to move about silently, they also have the potential to get trapped into closets, cabinets and other spots that they can get into undetected. If you’re home, no problem; you’ll likely soon be alerted of your cat’s dilemma by the sounds of scratching at the door or an indignant meow. But if you are planning on leaving the house for any length of time, it’s always best to do a quick check to make sure you know where your cats are before heading out.