How to Read Your Cat's Tail Language

Alison Gerken, DVM
July 30, 2020
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A familiar phrase claims that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but in cats, it’s their tail position that provides the greatest insight into what a cat is feeling.

Cats use their tail movements, along with their eyes, ears, and body postures, to communicate. Understanding cat tail language will help you to better understand your cat.

You can read your cat’s body language to determine how they feel about particular interactions and to identify the situations or environments that make your cat happy or cause fear. Reading the tail language of a cat can also help you identify illness and pain more readily.

These tips for understanding cat tail language will empower you to build a more loving, trusting, and fulfilling relationship with your cat.

Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails?

Just like dogs, cats move their tails to express their emotions. So what does it mean when a cat wags its tail? Let’s take a look at the different “wagging” tail movements and what they mean.

Thrashing Tail Movements

When your cat thrashes their tail, or is thumping it on the ground, they are irritated, annoyed, or angry. This tells you that something is bothering your cat.

This is a distance-increasing behavior. In other words, if you are petting your cat and they start thrashing their tail, they are trying to tell you to stop. If you don’t, then the thrashing tail may be a prelude to hissing, growling, swatting, or biting.

Twitching the End of the Tail

Cats twitch the end of their tails when they are hunting and playing, as well as when they are mildly irritated and frustrated. In this case, read the scene and look for other clues to their mood. If they’re not playing or stalking something, then the twitching tail movement probably means that they are annoyed.

Swishing Tails

When your cat slowly swishes their tail from side to side, they may be intently focused on something like a toy, another animal in the home, or something outside. They may be about to pounce!

Engaging in predatory behavior like stalking and pouncing is good enrichment for your cat, so let them continue to engage in whatever is captivating their attention.

Tail Quivers

Your cat may quiver their tail when they are especially excited to see you or another cat. Sometimes, when a cat quivers his tail while holding it straight up and backing up against a vertical surface, they may be urine marking.

Why Do Cats Wrap Their Tails Around You?

Just as we greet one another with handshakes or hugs, cats may greet by curling their tails around people and by intertwining their tails with other cats. Tail wrapping is an affiliative behavior that demonstrates a willingness to interact.

What Does It Mean When a Cat's Tail Stands Straight Up?

When a cat’s tail is upright, they are feeling social and confident, and approaching in a friendly manner.

This cat tail language indicates a friendly greeting between cats, and it’s how kittens greet their mothers. A research study by Cameron-Beaumont in 1997 found that cats were willing to readily approach a cat-shaped silhouette if it had a raised tail but were reluctant to approach the silhouette if it had a lowered tail.1

If your cat approaches you with their tail up, this is a good time to pet them or play with them.

What Does a Tail in a Question Mark or Hook Shape Mean?

You may notice that sometimes your cat’s tail looks like a question mark—it stands upright and curls at the end. This cat tail language indicates that your cat is happy and approaching amicably.

Seeing your cat’s tail in this position is an invitation to interact with your cat. However, while it is tempting to pet that curly-tipped tail, most cats prefer to be pet around their facial glands on their cheeks, under their chin, and next to their ears.

Why Do Cats Fluff Up Their Tails?

If your cat assumes the quintessential Halloween-cat posture with a puffed tail and arched back, then they are startled or frightened by a sudden, severe threat.

Your cat’s hair stands on end (piloerection) so that they can appear to be larger. This is a defensive reaction indicating that your cat wishes to be left alone.

This tail position is often triggered by feeling threatened by other animals in the yard, dogs approaching, visitors in the home, or sudden noises. Remove the inciting triggers to decrease your cat’s stress. If you try to interact with your cat when their hair is standing up, they may perceive your approach as a threat and become aggressive.

What If Your Cat's Tail Is Held Low to the Ground?

A cat may lower their tail below the level of their back if they are frightened or anxious. If your cat’s tail is tucked between their legs, then they are really scared or may be experiencing pain.

Why Do Cats Curl Their Tails Around Their Bodies?

If your cat is sitting or lying down with their tail wrapped around their body, then they are frightened, defensive, in pain, or feeling unwell. When you see this, end your interaction with your cat and ensure that your cat’s environment is free of stressors.

If your cat frequently crouches with their tail curled tightly around their body for more than a few days, then an evaluation by your veterinarian is warranted to rule out pain or illness.

Although you should look at more than just their tail movements, to fully understand your cat’s emotional state, the tail may be the most expressive part of a cat’s body language. Better understanding your cat’s body language will surely improve your bond with your cat.

Resources:

  1. Cameron-Beaumont CL. (1997). Visual and tactile communication in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) and undomesticated small felids (Doctoral dissertation, University of Southampton, United Kingdom). ISNI: 0000 0001 3514 9313.

  2. https://icatcare.org/advice/cat-communication/

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Featured Image: iStock.com/krblokhin