What your cat's tail is trying to tell you


Tabby cat walking away from pile of messy colourful wool
Tabby cat walking away from pile of messy colourful wool

Beneath that sheath of fur, a cat’s tail is a sensitive, intricate twist of vertebrae, muscles, tendons and nerves all linked together to help keep him in balance. If you’ve ever noticed a cat, while picking his way across a narrow ledge or fence, turn his attention to one side, he’ll shift his tail to the opposite side to help root his centre of gravity, which keeps him from taking a tumble (even tailless cats are remarkably sure-footed).

That fuzzy appendage is also a key indicator of kitty’s frame of mind (a marked disadvantage for the tail-free feline). Knowing what its particular position and movements mean can help you understand what your cat is thinking and feeling, and how you can respond. Toronto-based animal behaviourist Dorothy Litwin, who conducts housecalls and tele-consultations for behavioural issues in both cats and dogs, offers insight on the following nine cat tail positions.

Tall Tails

When a cat sticks her tail straight up, she’s in a chummy mood. “Cats use this position during greetings between cats, cats and dogs, cats and people — whomever the cat likes and interacts with on a regular basis,” says Litwin. In addition to offering herself up as a playmate, your kitty’s erect tail can signal that she’s ready to play and mate, particularly if the tail is held to one side. Some experts believe the high tail, often combined with rubbing, tracks back to kittenhood, when the fur baby would parade past his mama for a little bottom cleaning.

Tall and Quivering

Unlike the friendly “hello flag” of the tall tail, if an erect tail is accompanied by quivering, you’ve got a sprayer in the house. Male cats will spray to mark their territory, or “air spray” when they feel threatened. Often, however, that tall tail will quiver while kitty is rubbing against your leg as an indication he’s really into you.

The Low Down

A tail that is low to the ground and rigid, accompanied by flicking, signals offensive aggression; and defensive aggression if the tail is not rigid, says Litwin. A horizontal tail is friendly, and a tail that curves down and up at the tip when she’s sitting means your kitty is relaxed and content.

The Bait and Swish

The significance of a swishing tail depends on the situation, says Litwin. “A tail that is lashing or whipping, accompanied by growling, signals a very agitated cat — fear, aggression, frustration, for example. This often happens when a cat sees another cat in its territory, prompting him to move toward the unwelcome visitor and attack.”

A tail swaying back and forth at a slower pace, however, signals interest and focus on something in his environment, and could be the prelude to a pounce. Some behaviour experts believe a cat swishes his tail to mesmerize his prey before attacking. It can also be used to flush out his quarry. If the object of his interest is stock still, the cat can’t see it well enough, so he makes small swishes to goad his target into moving so he can zero in on its location.

Question Marks the Curl

A tall tail with a curl at the top represents a neutral, approachable or inquisitive cat who’s relaxed and comfortable. Perfect time to break out the laser or wooly mice.

Arched and Fluffed

“An arched back and fluffed-up tail, together with the rest of the body language, can be a sign of fear or anger,” says Litwin. The cat believes she’s in a threatening situation, and may be trying to decide whether to go on the offense or defense. Remove the threat and approach with caution.

Flicking and Wagging

Your cat is telling you she’s bugged about something. It could be she’s annoyed at an unfamiliar situation or intrusion; it could be that you’re over-stimulating her. Contrary to popular belief, many cats can’t tolerate a full-body stroke, as it can send electrical pulses down their spine. If your cat’s tail flicks slightly when you start petting her and graduates to a full-on wag, back off; she’s about to bite and bolt. Best to take it on the chin and stick with neck and head scratches.

Tail Licking and Biting

If your kitty obsessively licks or bites his tail, it could indicate frustration or boredom. Kittens often chase and bite their tails just for fun. But it could also signal an injury or skin condition, which would require a trip to the vet lickety-split.

Tail Between the Legs

Just as dogs tuck their tails between their legs when they’re afraid, so do cats. It’s an instinctive reaction to protect the stomach, the most sensitive and vulnerable spot on their body. It can also be a sign of submissiveness.

“If a cat wraps her tail around herself while lying down, with all limbs tucked under her body, this can also signal fear,” says Litwin of this common defensive posture. On the other hand, “If she’s sitting, it may signal contentment.” 

The angles of Fifi’s tail, combined with other visual cues from her ears, whiskers and fur, can communicate much about her state of mind and body (a constant negative tail position, for instance, can indicate an unhappy, injured or ill cat, which requires prompt medical attention). But not every position or motion will always tell you everything about every cat every time. These theories just scratch the surface.

“There is still a lot that we don’t know about tails and tail positions,” says Litwin. “There are some disagreements on the actual meanings behind tail communication. It is a fascinating topic and one that we need more studies on.”

Meantime, keep an eye on the tales your cat’s tail may be telling you.

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