The tail is a crucial part of feline anatomy. Cats use their tails to retain balance and communicate mood. This means that a cat has complete control over its tail, unless it’s damaged or injured in some way.
Cats control their tail movement. Most movements of the tail mean that your cat is trying to tell you something. The tail may twitch while it sleeps, but a cat that’s waking up should not have spasms in the tail. This suggests parasites, or injury to the spine and tail.
Spasms and movements of a cat’s tail all have different meanings. It’s how many cats communicate. If your cat loses control of its tail due to an injury, it may need to be removed. Cats can adjust well to life without a tail.
Do Cats Have Complete Control of Their Tails?
Cats are not as associated with tail movements as other domesticated animals. This does not mean that a cat has no control over its tail.
- A cat’s tail contains roughly 10% of all its bones
- The tail contains between 19 and 23 vertebrae
- A cat’s tail can vary in length
- On average, a male cat’s tail will be an inch longer than a female’s tail
Voluntary Cat Tail Movements
Your cat uses its tail for balance or communication. In the latter case, it is advisable to learn your cat’s body language. A cat’s tail is more communicative than you may realize.
1/ Maintaining Balance
Along with the inner ear, a cat’s tail is essential for balance. An experiment published in Behavioral Brain Research placed cats on a balance beam that suddenly moved. The cats moved its tail in the opposite direction of the change of direction. This realigned the cat’s hips, helping it retain balance.
This is how a cat can perform seemingly death-defying feats of agility. A cat walking on top of a fence or balcony will regularly move its tail. If a gust of wind threatens to throw a cat off-balance, its tail will restore poise.
Following a clean break of vertebrae in the tail, it may need to be amputated. The cat will adjust to this and will not become unbalanced. It will simply rely more on the inner ear for balance. This is known as, “Manx Cat Syndrome”, as this breed of cat is born without a tail.
2/ Body Language
Aside from balance, the main purpose of a cat’s tail is communication. While tail movements are more closely associated with canines, feline tails are just as forthcoming.
Cats use their tails to announce that they are happy, fearful, angry and much more. As a cat owner, it is essential that you understand the body language of a cat’s tail.
Your cat will constantly use this appendage to communicate mood. If you do not understand the meaning, your cat may feel justified in biting you.
Tail Held High
In an ideal world, a cat will always have a straight tail held high. This denotes a happy, confident cat going about its business.
If the tail curves upward and points toward you, give the cat some attention. The cat is announcing that it is happy to see you. Some cats also adopt this tail position as an invitation to play.
The only danger of a highly extended tail is when the fur is puffed up. This suggests the cat is deeply afraid. The cat is extending its tail as much as possible to look larger. The tail may also quiver. Walk away from a cat showing this posture. It will attack you otherwise.
Tail Held Low
A low tail is something to behold with caution. If a cat holds its tail low and straight, it is unhappy about something. Oftentimes, the cat will launch an attack if not left alone. Leave the cat to cool off before approaching.
The exception to this rule is Persian cats. This breed tends to always hold a low tail, regardless of mood. Most Persian cats are vocal and friendly.
If the cat holds its tail low and between its legs, it is afraid. This may be an expression of submission to another, dominant cat. If your cat approaches you this way, think about why. Your cat is seemingly afraid of you.
Tail Moving from Side to Side
Cats move also swish their tails from side to side. The speed at which a cat performs this action is telling.
A cat that slowly moves its tail in exaggerated movements is excited. You will often see this while a cat is hunting or playing with a toy. The movement will usually be followed by pouncing.
Bear this in mind if your cat is watching you and moving its tail. Your cat may be plotting to throw itself at you. This is usually a result of frustrated hunting instincts. As the cat cannot hunt smaller prey, it is treating your ankles as a moving target.
Rapid, twitching tail movements are more concerning. This suggests that the cat is agitated or overstimulated. Always look for this action in a cat, especially if petting.
Stroking can become painful if the cat’s sensitive skin is overstimulated. If the cat’s tail is quivering, cease petting at once. Raise your hands and let your cat escape. This swishing tail is the only warning you will receive.
If you continue petting, your cat will likely bite. It considered that it gave you fair warning, which was ignored. The biting will be an unmistakable expression of displeasure.
A cat may also quiver its tail when spraying. This is a way to mark territory without releasing urine. It is most common in spayed females. The cat is releasing an odor that cannot be detected by humans. The smell is unmistakable to other cats, though.
Involuntary Cat Tail Movements
There will be occasions that a cat’s tail moves involuntarily. The tail may also hang loose and limp, not moving at all. A cat’s tail undergoes muscle spasms for three main reasons:
- Environmental stimulus
Be mindful of changed tail activity in a cat. It may suggest that your cat requires medical attention.
1/ Injury to the Tail
A cat’s tail is directly linked to its spine. Usually, the spine ends and the tail begins at the fifth lumbar vertebra. This means that a back injury can leave a cat’s tail irreparably damaged. The line of communication between back and tail has been severed.
If the cat ‘only’ has a tail injury, it will not necessarily damage the spine. This does not mean that a tail injury can be ignored, though.
Veterinary Surgery surveyed 51 cats with tail injuries, finding that 84.3% had other issues.
The most common tail injuries in cats revolve around impact. The tail may have been tugged sharply, impacted by blunt trauma, or trapped in a door.
Cats may also have been bitten on the tail during conflict. The more serious the injury, the less hopeful the prognosis of full recovery becomes.
Injuries to the tail often show the following symptoms:
- Spasms and twitches
- Unnatural tail position
- Dragging of the tail
- Urinary incontinence
- Diarrhea and fecal incontinence
Senior cats may also experience inflammation in the tail. This will typically be caused by a bacterial infection. As older cats have weaker immunity, they grow more susceptible to such concerns.
2/ Stimulating the Tail
A cat’s tail is sensitive to external stimuli. Just like humans emit a shudder at drops in temperature, a cat’s tail will twitch. Itching caused by parasites will also cause a cat to move its tail, seemingly subconsciously. The cat is attempting to rid itself of irritation.
Some cats also live with a condition called feline hyperesthesia syndrome. This is an extreme sensitivity to any contact with the skin. A cat with hyperesthesia will constantly twitch its tail as a reflex.
A cat’s tail will often by the first body part to react to drops in temperature. Think of this is a feline shiver. The twitch may be a brief one-off, or it may become constant.
In the latter instance, your cat is too cold. Take your cat’s temperature. This should read between 100.5 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Any less leaves a cat at risk of hypothermia. Immediately warm up a cold cat, and check for signs of fever or respiratory distress.
If the cat’s body temperature is fine, the environment caused the shiver. Check the thermostat of your home. Cats like an ambient temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If this is impossible due to the temperature outside, offer a hot water bottle.
If the room temperature is safe, move your cat’s bed. The cat is picking up on a draught. This is an unpleasant experience for cats. Felines enjoy a consistent, unchanging environment. When the cat is comfortable, the tail twitches will cease.
Fleas and mites love to congregate around a cat’s tail. An infestation around the tail will not necessarily result in scratching. The first warning sign of parasites if often a regular and unmanageable twitching of the tail.
Even after resolving a flea infestation, your cat’s tail may still twitch. Some cats are allergic to fleas. They will experience residual effects of an infestation, including skin conditions. This will result in tail twitching. A topical ointment will be required to manage this issue.
Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome
Hyperesthesia takes hold in times of high stress for cats. The cat’s skin will become extremely sensitive. Any contact, even those as minor as carpet fibers, will send ripples down the cat’s spine. These twitches will culminate in the tail, resulting in twitches.
A twitching tail is just the first sign of a problem for cats. Left untreated, hyperesthesia can result in a cat grooming to excess and even heart failure.
As the condition is brought upon high stress, the cat will also experience hypertension. This starts out temporary but can become a permanent concern. This will be potentially lethal for senior cats. Older cats already have weaker hearts than younger counterparts.
Treating hyperesthesia does not require medical intervention. You just need to keep your cat calm. Steps for this include:
- Strict, unbending routine the cat can rely on
- Calming scents and sounds in the home
- Regular one-on-time between cat and owner
- Private space for the cat to retreat to
- Plenty of activities and toys when the cat is alone
There may come a time that hyperesthesia is unavoidable. House moves, and arrivals of new pets and babies, will often cause hyperesthesia.
3/ Cat Dreaming
Scientists have long believed that cats dream. Physiology and Behavior confirm that the rapid-eye movements of a sleeping cat are consistent with dreaming.
What science cannot tell us is what cats dream about. A popular theory is that cat dreams involve replaying the events of a day, though. Cats are believed to have a short-term memory of around 16 hours.
A cat that dreams of hunting will grow excitable. A cat that dreams of being chased by a dog will grow fearful. These emotions will be reflected in involuntary tail twitches, as well as verbalizations.
If the cat’s tail curls upward, it is recalling a happy experience. This could have been you returning from work, and the attention that followed. If a cat’s tail twitches and puffs during sleep, it is likely having a nightmare.
Although this can look concerning, resist the temptation to wake the cat. You will startle your cat, who will be experiencing residual anxiety from the dream. This will invariably result in instinctive clawing and biting. Let your cat ride out the sleep cycle. Offer comfort when it wakes up.
Waking cats should enjoy complete control of their tails. If this is not the case, your cat may have an injury. Do not let a dragging or constantly-twitching tail go ignored. This is another form of feline communication.