Cats are excellent at communicating their moods. Whether your cat is twitching its tail, swishing it, keeping it completely straight or is curving it gracefully, each action and position indicates a different emotion. A cat’s fluffed up tail can signal multiple messages. Learning to recognize them can increase your understanding of your cat’s emotions and strengthen the bond with your pet.
A puffed-up tail is your cat’s way of communicating mixed emotions, from fear to aggression. You’ll normally see a cat puffing its tail if it has been startled or if it gets frustrated while playing.
Cats puff their tails to make themselves appear as big as possible and ward off predators or competitors. Understanding whether your cat’s tail puffs up due to play and excitement, or fear and aggression can help you decide what you can do to make your kitty feel better.
What Does a Puffed Up Tail Mean?
Cats are evolutionarily predisposed to perform specific actions that help them look intimidating when facing a threat. According to The Ohio State University, puffing the tail is one method that helps them look as big as possible.
Therefore, your cat may be puffing its tail because it detects a threat nearby. This threat can be a startling noise, such as a sneeze, or something significant, such as an approaching dog or a predator.
Technically, your cat may not even be in danger, especially in the comfort of its home. However, it is still ancestrally wired to jump into the offensive without the need of warning. This is because cats aren’t really at the top of the food chain. A predator or even a more dominant neighborhood cat can encroach in its territory and pose a threat.
A big, puffy tail is a reflexive body language for cats to help scare away other animals that are higher up in the food chain.
How Does a Cat’s Tail Puff Up?
A cat’s tail appears bigger when muscles in the skin at the base of the hair contract. The contraction lifts each hair away from the skin. This is similar to how humans have goosebumps. In cats, the physical process that transitions from a sleek coat to instant pouf-ball is called piloerection.
Piloerection means “hair upright,” which is what happens when a cat is scared or startled. Piloerection can also occur when a cat is cold.
Hair standing upright can help trap air inside a cat’s coat, thus acting as insulation to trap body heat. Sometimes, piloerection may occur if a cat is stressed or sick. Your cat may even be having a flashback to a traumatic experience that occurred when it was a kitten.
A cat’s hair stands up as a response to hormone signals from the fight or flight system or sympathetic nervous system, as a result of stress, fear, and anger. On some occasions, the hair on your cat’s back may also stand along with its tail.
Not all cats respond the same way when they are scared or startled. While some cats puff their tails easily, even at the sight of a cucumber, others may never puff up. Different cats have ways of showing their emotions. Identifying how your cat communicates its emotions can be beneficial.
Why Does My Cat’s Tail Puff Up?
Piloerection could mean that a cat is under stress. However, it can be challenging to identify what type of stress your cat is going through. When your cat makes its tail bigger, it can be for numerous reasons.
Maybe your cat is being pushed around by a bigger bully, or it is being attacked (or at least thinks so) or it’s trying to look scarier to warn an enemy away from its territory.
1) Your Cat is Scared or Startled
A cat may hold its puffy tail straight up or straight down, and both are designed to signal different messages. An entirely straight, puffy tail means that your cat is in offensive mode and is ready to fight.
A lowered puffed up tail means that your cat is afraid. Your cat has detected something that it doesn’t like. This could be a threat or something that scares her. Your cat may look directly at the threat with the back legs crouched slightly.
If your cat is scared, allow it to get away from the source of fear so that it can get back into being its usual lively and standoffish self.
Other signals include arching the back, yowling, hissing, growling, flattening the ears and spitting.
2) Your Cat is Angry or Aggressive
When a cat puffs up its tail, and holds it completely erect in the air, it’s telling you that it is getting aggressive and that its opponent or threat should back down. If another cat or a person annoys your cat, a straight puffed up tail says “back down” or “Stop, I don’t like what you’re doing.”
Your cat may also push its ears back. Sometimes, an aggressive cat will not only puff up its tail, but its entire body as well. Constricted pupils are another common sign. In addition to looking bigger and more threatening using its tail, your cat may also indulge in a staring competition, or yowl, hiss, and growl until the opponent, or your cat surrenders.
Most cats prefer to use overly dramatic bluffs over fighting. Fighting is more of a last resort, in case both opponents don’t back off.
3) Your Cat is Ready to Attack
If your cat puffs its tail while arching it, it means it’s about to attack. When a cat shows aggression towards another cat, it must be told that it is not okay. If your cat is preparing for a catfight, grab the spray bottle and get ready to squirt your cats before the fight begins.
According to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology encouraging a cat to pounce on or bite another person may teach your pet that it is rewarding to perform such actions.
If your cat is threatening another person, let your cat know right away that it must stop what it is doing and leave the area – unless that person wants to be scratched or bitten. Provoking your cat further and staring at is guaranteed to result in an attack.
Moreover, if you’re wondering why your cat’s tail puffs up when you’re trying to pet it, it could mean it’s in an aggressive mood. Again, it’s best to back off and leave your kitty alone until it decides to come to you for rubs.
4) “Big Tail” Stance
This is slightly different from your cat’s aggressive position. It’s easy to get confused because both stances can look almost the same – but they mean the opposite.
The difference between the “big tail” stance and your cat’s aggressive posture is that your cat is in a positive mood while it exhibits the former.
Your cat may have a bushy tail while playing or chasing a toy prey. A playful tail is often completely straight and slightly rounded. Even adult cats puff their tails during play. According to Gary Landsberg et al., play behaviors in cats are similar to their predatory behaviors, which include stalking, pouncing, chasing and biting.
To determine whether your cat is feeling happy or angry, pay attention to its posture and body movements. A “big tail” stance is often accompanied by a relaxed body, whereas aggressiveness always occurs with somebody tightness, muscle tension, ears flattening or flaring backward. An aggressive posture will suggest backing off, or say “I’m about to attack you.”
If your cat is relaxed, it is not going to attack you. Therefore, let your cat do its thing and continue playing in its own way. Other indicators for playfulness in cats include, whiskers pointed forward, erect ears and dilated pupils. These behaviors are often followed by squatting, wriggling the puffed-up tail and pouncing at the play opponent or toy.
5) Your Cat is Being Submissive
Your cat may be puffing up its tail as a sign of submission. Cats usually do this to avoid confrontations with a pushier, or more dominant opponent.
When your cat is submissive, it will puff up its tail and lower it, sometimes even tucking the tail between the legs. This is similar to how it behaves when it is scared.
What To Do When Your Cat Puffs Its Tail
If your cat is puffing its tail because it has been startled, ignore it and allow your cat to calm down on its own. However, if your cat puffs its tail as a sign of aggression to another pet, consider keeping them in separate rooms for a short period. Slowly introduce both animals, supervising them carefully. Avoid trying to force them to interact or play together all the time.
If it is something else, such as an inanimate object, take the item away from your cat to help it calm down. Your cat may be puffing its tail because it is scared of the neighborhood cat. To make your pet feel better, consider closing the curtains so that it cannot see the other animals in the yard or the neighborhood.
If you have a cat that is easily startled or excited, consider offering it a safe and comfortable place to retreat to. This can be a kitty condo, a cat tree or a high cat perch. A quiet, cozy place away from the hustle and bustle of your household can help your cat feel safe, reduce its stress and minimize aggressive situations with other pets in your household.
Kittens enjoy startling each other during play. A kitten that is playing alone may place itself in situations that will stimulate the hairs on its tail to stand up. This is similar to the adrenaline rush that occurs when children play games that end with an unexpected fright or surprise. If your cat is acting playful while frightening itself into bushy-tailed exhilaration, let your cat continue playing.
Things to Lookout For
When a cat is stressed, it can take some time for it to calm down fully. Your cat may spit, hiss, scratch, bite, puff up, dilate its pupils or exhibit other unusual behaviors for hours after the unpleasant situation. Sometimes, such behaviors can last even days. It depends on how long it takes for your cat’s hormone overload (a type of PTSD in cats) to wear off.
Be careful while approaching your cat or handling it as this could startle your kitty again. Unless your cat is injured, you should give it some time alone, even it means hiding away from other members of the family. Eventually, your cat will spring back to its old perky self again.
If your cat is injured or bleeding from a fight, get it into a carrier and seek medical attention. Keep an eye out for drooling, loss of appetite, prolonged hiding and not drinking water. If your cat shows unusual behaviors that indicate its sick, take it to a vet. If your cat acts aggressively while you handle it, wear protective gloves or mittens to keep it from hurting you out of panic or pain.
Why Doesn’t My Long-Haired Cat Puff Up Its Tail?
If you have a long-haired cat and a short-haired one, you may notice that the latter puffs up immediately when excited during play, while the other appears the same. This is common in long-haired breeds because their fur may be too heavy to be pushed straight up.
From an evolutionary perspective, when cats had to look out for themselves in the wild or alleys, puffing up the tail and looking bigger to scare off opponents probably served them well. However, among cats that are pampered and kept indoors, this tactic is often not as useful.
There are no selective pressures for domesticated cats to maintain this ability.
Therefore, there are no shortcomings attached to longhaired breeds not being able to become menacingly bushy. Here’s some further information on how cats tails work.