Cats use their tails for balance and body-temperature regulation. Cats also use their tails for the purpose of communication, but the messages being conveyed can sometimes get lost in feline-to-human translation.
A puffed-up tail says, “I’m scared,” a low, straight tail says, “I’m ready to attack”, and a vertical tail says “I’m pleased to see you!”. If a cat wraps its tail around you, this is a sign of trust. And If a cat swishes its tail from side to side, it is likely deep in concentration.
Cats all behave differently. Tail language in cats doesn’t always fit with these basic guidelines. To understand what your cat’s tail movements mean, you should look more closely at your cat’s entire body language.
Why Do Cats Have Tails?
The tail is an integral part of the cat’s anatomy. The tail is referred to as the “fifth limb.” So, why is a cat’s tail so important? It has 3 basic functions:
- Communication – Cats use their tails to communicate with other animals and humans. They can express feelings such as fear, anger, trust, or contentment. Cats can also scent-mark using the scent-glands at the base of their tail.
- Temperature regulation – Cats with bushy tails, such as Maine Coon cats, can cuddle their tail to keep warm. Cats originating from hot climates, such as Siamese, have thin tails that help them stay cool.
- Balance – The cat’s tail is vital for stability, especially when jumping.
What Is a Cat’s Tail Made Of?
It may look like a tube of fur, but the cat’s tail has a complex structure. The tail is made up of 18-23 bones. The bones are larger at the base of the tail and gradually get smaller towards the tip.
Each small bone is surrounded by 6 layers of muscle on each side. This allows the cat to flex, extend, and swish its tail.
The base of the tail is connected to the cat’s lumbar spine, and lots of tail movements are controlled by muscles in the lumbar spine. This means spinal injuries can affect tail mobility.
What Cat Tail Movements Mean
The following “tail language” tips can be used as a starting point for understanding your cat’s behavior.
However, tail movements often have multiple meanings. Also, it’s essential to consider your cat’s entire body language, not just tail movements.
1/ Tail Standing Tall
When a cat’s tail is vertical, this usually means that it is happy to see you. Muscles in the cat’s lumbar spine initiate this tail movement.
According to Science Direct, cats perform this “tail up” behavior when:
- They are greeting their mother as kittens.
- They are greeting another cat, usually a cat with higher social status, in a friendly way.
In a domestic setting, your cat is probably saying something like “hello!” “play with me” “feed me” or “I am happy to be around you.”
If your cat is rubbing its face on you, or rubbing the base of its tail on you, this is further evidence that it is greeting you. Also, cats sniff each other during a friendly greeting.
So, if your cat’s tail straight up in the air, it’s rubbing against you, and sniffing you, it must be feeling happy and contented.
2/ Tail Tall and Vibrating
If your cat’s tail is upright and vibrating, it is probably excited. Some cats do this when they know dinner is about to be served. Cats’ tails may also vibrate after they’ve smelled catmint or eaten something delicious like tuna.
If your cat’s tail is low and vibrating, it may also be excited. But a low tail is more often a sign of fear or anger. If the tail is down and thrashing, this suggests it is very irritated and about to pounce.
3/ Tail Low and Straight
If your cat’s tail is low and sticking straight out behind it, then it probably feels threatened. Cats tend to keep their tails low and straight if they are unsure about a situation.
This may be because it is easier to jump or pounce from a tail-down position. Keeping their tails down also helps them to hide from predators.
However, a tail-down position does not necessarily mean your cat feels threatened. Look for other cues to confirm this:
- Are your kitty’s eyes very wide?
- Are its ears pricked up?
- Is its body flattened?
If so, it probably feels wary and suspicious. Persian cats always keep their tails low, no matter their mood, so there are exceptions to these basic rules.
4/ Tail Swishing from Side to Side
If your cat’s tail is swishing from side to side, then it is probably concentrating on something. Cats tend to do this then they are stalking prey or watching something out of the window.
If your tail is swishing its tail quickly, this suggests that it is ready to pounce. It’s best not to pet your cat when it is in “hunting mode.”
If your cat is concentrating on something that is outside the window, try to redirect its attention inside the home. It is crucial to play with your cat regularly to satisfy its desire to “hunt.”
Cats sometimes also swish their tail from side to side if they are overheated. If that’s the case, your cat will be lying down and showing signs of exhaustion. Make sure your cat has water and a cool place to sleep.
5/ Tail Between Legs
If your cat is standing on all fours, and its tail is swishing between its legs, it probably feels intimidated.
Animals hang their tails low so as not to draw attention to themselves. Having the tail in this position also helps to protect the most delicate part of their body.
Various factors can make a cat feel intimidated. Often, it’s because the home is too noisy, or there are too many pets or people around.
Cats may also put their tail between their legs when they are feeling sick or in pain. Falling sick makes them more vulnerable to predators, so they try to become inconspicuous by lowering the tail.
6/ Hugging Tail
If your cat is lying down and hugging its tail, then it may be trying to stay warm. Breeds such as Maine Coon have long, bushy tails for this purpose. Cats may also hug their tails to feel protected.
Kittens can often be seen hugging their tails while they sleep. They may do this to stay warm, or it might be a self-soothing behavior.
If your cat is continually hugging its tail while indoors, this suggests it’s more of a comfort thing, rather than a need to stay warm. Check for any signs of stress such as patchy fur or weight loss.
7/ Tail Puffing Up
If your cat’s tail is puffed up like a bristle brush, this means that it is terrified. Cats puff their tails up to look bigger in front of predators, so it’s a bad idea to touch your kitty when it’s in this state.
Cats with bristly tails are synonymous with Halloween. Most of us have seen these tails in comic strips, but we don’t see them much in real life. This is because cats only behave this way when they are petrified.
If your cat sees an aggressive dog, coyote, or another threatening animal, then it may behave in this way.
Cats may also puff up their tails when they have been stroked for too long and have become overstimulated. If that’s the case, the fur tends to stand on end, but the cat’s body language remains quite relaxed.
There will be no hissing, spitting, etc, and the cat’s eyes will not widen. An overstimulated cat will usually walk away when it has had enough.
8/ Tail Puffed Up at the Base
Sometimes, the fur at the base of the tail puffs up, but the rest of the fur remains flat. If your cat’s eyes are wide, and its body is also raised up at the same time, this is a clear sign of aggression. You should leave your cat alone and let it calm down.
If your cat gently lifts the base of its tail and rubs its bottom against your leg, this is different. This can be interpreted as a friendly greeting.
9/ Tail Moving While Sleeping
Cats sleep for around 16 hours a day. Sleep leaves cats vulnerable to predators, so they’ve learned how to protect themselves while sleeping.
Cats are light sleepers and use their tails to sense danger. If their tail detects a threat, this prompts them to wake up and run away.
If your cat is sleeping, but its tail is gently swishing, this suggests that it’s in a light stage of sleep. If your cat always seems semi-alert while sleeping, try to reduce noise and stress in the household.
10/ Tail Wrapped Around Someone
According to some cat behaviorists, this is the ultimate sign of affection. When cats wrap their tails around other cats or humans, this can be compared to a hug.
After all, a cat’s tail is very sensitive and they use it for balance. So, placing their tail around someone else is a sign of trust. If your cat blinks slowly in front of you, this is another sign of trust and affection.
How Do Cats Tails Help Them Balance?
According to NCBI, cats use their tails as a counterbalance when walking and jumping. In this experiment, cats had to walk across a narrow beam.
When the beam was tilted slightly to the right (forcing the cat’s body to the right), they stuck their tail out to the left to compensate. This stopped them from falling off the beam.
Cheetahs use their tail in this way when pouncing on prey. The tail helps them shift their weight quickly from side to side so they can corner their prey. Cats may do something similar when they catch mice.
What’s more, when a cat falls from a countertop or window, the tail may help it to land more effectively. Because the tail rotates in the opposite direction to the rest of the body in midair, this provides angular momentum, which sets the cat up for a better landing.
Do Some Cats Not Have Tails?
Manx cats are born without tails or with short, stubby tails. These cats originate from the Isle of Man.
The tail-less gene began as a random genetic mutation. It spread because the Isle of Man is a small island with limited breeding opportunities.
Manx cats can still function without a tail because they have slightly longer legs to compensate.
What Happens If a Cat Loses Its Tail?
Road accidents can sometimes lead to tail injuries. If the damage is severe, the cat’s tail may need to be removed.
If a cat loses its tail, then it may struggle to jump at first, but it will usually adjust. Cats are adaptable creatures, and tail amputations don’t usually affect their quality of life.
The tail is an essential part of the cat’s anatomy because it is used for balance and social interaction. Although cats use their tails to communicate with humans, we don’t always understand what they are trying to say.
Use the above guidance to decode a feline’s behavior. Although you cannot know for sure how your cat is feeling, you can get a really good idea by looking at your cat’s tail language.