Cat Displacement Activity

Nose licking as feline displacement-activity

Nose licking as feline displacement-activity. This is Charlie outside being unsure of himself.

Cats have various displacement activities. They include:

  • grooming
  • nose licking
  • tail wagging

People also engage in displacement activity. It is very commonplace. It results from indecision and uncertainty. The indecision may arise because there are two or more choices and the animal engaged in displacement activity is unsure which choice to take. He is undecided. I’m including the human animal.

Displacement activity has been used to measure stress in primates. I suppose that displacement activity is a sign of stress to varying levels because indecision sets up a stress.

Tail Wagging

Tail wagging in cats is rather hard to describe in the written word because there are various kinds of tail wagging. One kind is demonstrated when a cat is uncertain. In my experience the sort of tail wagging that occurs when a cat is being indecisive is horizontal swishing and it can be in slow motion depending upon the degree of agitation.

You do not often see a description of the sort of tail wagging that takes place as part of displacement activity and I think is important because there are various ways that a cat can wag his tail! For example, when a cat is resting and you talk to him he may respond by gently raising up his tail, the end of the tail flexes or flicks a little bit, and then the tail is lowered. This is, at least, a recognition that he has received your communication. But this is quite different to displacement activity.

When a cat is hunting and is uncertain about chasing prey, for various reasons (perhaps there is insufficient cover), he may swish his tail left-to-right as a form of displacement activity showing us that he is uncertain about what to do.  Should he chase or stay back? There is conflict in his brain.

We can deduce that feline displacement activity in respect of tail wagging should be a left to right or horizontal movement of the tail. This is because this behaviour has evolved from the physical action of the tail being used as a means to balance the cat when manoeuvring over difficult to terrain or, for example, on branches of trees. The word “balance” is important here. The tail helps the cat find his balance. Displacement activity is when the mind is in balance between two possible choices and is uncertain which choice to make.

Nose licking

We frequently see the domestic cat rapidly lick his nose with his flexible, long tongue. This also tells us that our cat is a little unsure about what is happening. It happens so often and so instinctively that we hardly notice it. When I pick up my cat to take into the kitchen and talk to him and put my head close to his he may lick his nose, which tells me that my face is too close to his and as a consequence he feels a little bit unsure about it. Although, I must say he rarely does it these days because he’s used to it. We can gauge by a cat’s nose licking as displacement activity, whether what we are engaged in doing with our cat is acceptable to him or her.


Grooming is calming for a cat. Sometimes cats de-stress themselves by grooming themselves. There are other reasons of course why a cat grooms himself but one of them can be to feel calmer. Grooming is a pleasant experience for a cat and a cat finds it reassuring. Overgrooming is a sign of constant anxiety.

Prevented from doing something

Displacement activity can also occur when a cat is unable to do something that he desires to do. The underlying reason is the same. There is a conflict: he wants to do something but can’t. It’s a green light and a red light one after the other.


Typical human displacement activity is: nail biting and head scratching. There are a myriad of other displacement activities some of which can be quite personalised.

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Cat Displacement Activity — 7 Comments

  1. Interesting article, Michael; this is quite interesting, to say the least. I am commenting b/c of the “nose-licking.”
    Do you not think that this is a means of dealing with, “Okay, I am needing to have my faculties about me, especially my sense of smell…” You see, this may be reflexive in a little bout of anxiety, but I really do think that it is less primary, and more immediate. Did I misinterpret and am just being slow? -Cal

    • I just think that because my cat and I think that you have misinterpreted our our understanding of how our minds think, you are not alone. Many have never understood ANYTHING to do with our Felinus interminus behavior. 🙁

      • I don’t think the article reflects a misunderstanding of feline behaviour. I’m convinced that it is true because displacement activity is commonplace amongst many animal species including of course the best-known, the human animal. And it makes sense because displacement activity is a way of making oneself feel better by displacing the uncomfortable sensation of anxiety brought about by being unsure what to do next when there are choices and conflicting decisions to make.

    • You could be correct, Cal, when you say that it is a way of preparing (almost) a cat’s senses which includes her nose. But then, we scratch our heads when we are unsure about what to do. Can you figure out the origins of that behaviour? Or we bite our nails when we are unsure. I wonder what the origins of that action is.

      The argument goes that biting one’s nails is just creating a sensation which displaces or pushes out the uncomfortable experience of being unsure what to do next.

      • Michael, I really am exasperated. Not even you understand as much as would have hoped for.

        Okay, digest: you’re nose is just as sensitive as mine. So you understand, when I say, I will take my little humble paw and rub my nose, to rid it of all of those bewildering smells [odors] that I cannot tolerate, because I need to FOCUS!

        Does that help, Michael? >^..^<

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