Why do tigers pace?

You’ll probably know by now that tigers pace in captivity as a coping mechanism. Worried humans pace too. It is a sign of stress. Tigers don’t do it in the wild. It is not something you want to see and be proud of because humans created the environment in which tigers display this abnormal behavior. Many wild cat species and other animals pace back and forth in zoos. Sometimes this form of abnormal behavior varies but it will always be repetitive and it will go on for a long time. I remember seeing a bobcat half climb his cage railings and jump down and he’d do this over and over. It is disturbing to see if you care about animal welfare.

Tiger pacing -- You can see the track that he/she has created by endless pacing in this dismal enclosure.
Tiger pacing — You can see the track that he/she has created by endless pacing in this dismal enclosure.
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I can remember being in the cage/enclosure of a serval at A1 Savannahs in Oklahoma, a breeder of Savannah cats and servals. The male cat in the enclosure, Morpheus, was pacing endlessly back and forth against the railings. He’d take no more than a few paces in one direction and the same in the other direction. The ground became muddy. His ‘wife’ was under cover nearby. It was all very depressing to be frank. He hissed at me and sprayed urine over me. I photographed him close up. He scratched me. Not a great life for a captive wild cat. He’s probably dead by now as I met him around 7 years ago.

I think pacing is a form of displacement activity for captive animals. In other words the act of pacing is therapeutic as it distracts the animal’s mind from the fact that they are captive, living in a small space with no control over their future. It is the lack of freedom – a lack of control over what they can do – which generates mental torment. It is mental torture and can cause psychological problems, I would suggest. I remember seeing a monkey who had been released from a chain. He’d been chained all his life. He had become slightly mad. So cruel. Pacing eases the discomfort by distracting the mind. The mind has to process the activity albeit it is a very false and meaningless activity.

Another form of ‘displacement activity’ that you’ll see in cats including domestic cats is nose licking. If your cat can’t make up his mind or is unsure about something or has just been through a slightly uncomfortable experience he might lick his nose. If he has done that immediately after you put him down you’ll know that he was not all that pleased with being picked up 😉

Prisoners in cells often pace. The reason is similar. It is distracting. The mind thinks better when pacing. It sort of massages the mind. Also sometimes when people deliver speeches they pace back and forth. I have seen this. Gordon Brown, the UK’s Prime Minister at one time paced up and down before the microphone when delivering his pro-European speech before the referendum. It must have made the words flow more easily.

We don’t know what goes through the mind of a captive wild cat such as a tiger when he or she is pacing. I’d suggest that something specific is going through their minds. It will be thoughts of hunting and being free to make choices.

Is it true that tigers or cats born into captivity will not be stressed and will not pace? I can’t find a clean answer in books or on the internet. The answer will be that it is irrelevant whether the cat was born at the zoo. He’ll still feel stressed and still pace (perhaps) because it is in the DNA of these magnificent creatures to roam over huge areas, many square miles, when hunting. Take that freedom and control away from them and they’ll feel a gnawing discomfort which they have discovered that they can ease by pacing.

2 thoughts on “Why do tigers pace?”

  1. It is thought the repetitive movements cause the body to release encephalins which can be said to have a calming effect. The repetitive movements are called ‘stereotypese’ and are always a sign that the animal is badly stressed. Long term low level stress, as endured by animals in zoos, can be very harmful to physical health.


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