Your cat’s tail serves many functions aside from tickling your nose when she walks across your computer keyboard as you try to work or blocking the view as you attempt to read texts on your phone. One important function is that the tail contributes to the cat’s sense of balance. It serves as a natural counterweight for those abrupt turns during high speeds and also keeps the cat balanced when walking on narrow branches or walkways.
The cat’s tail is also quite an effective communication device. The tail’s position or movement are mood indicators and if you pay attention, you can gain insight about what your cat is feeling. The position of the tail is also used to communicate to other cats. Of course, when it comes to interpreting your cat’s mood, you can’t rely exclusively on the tail without taking other body signals and the immediate environment into account, but the tail is extremely expressive and offers many clues.
A cat who walks with her tail in an upright position is typically displaying a feeling of confidence and comfort in her surroundings. It’s almost as if the tail is a flag in the air indicting a willingness to be noticed and to engage in social interaction. If your cat is walking toward you and you notice she also gives a little flick with the tip of her upright tail, consider that a friendly greeting. Make sure you don’t pass her by without offering some attention, affection or a little playtime.
The Question Mark
An upright tail that has a little hook or curve at the top is an even stronger indication of a desire to interact as the cat approaches. She may also give a slight flick of the tail.
The Spray Quiver
When a cat is about to spray-mark, she will back up to an object and her upright tail will begin to quiver. Her body posture will also include treading with her front paws. Cats who are spray-marking will also usually close their eyes or have them half-closed. And yes, female cats do spray, in case you were wondering.
The Anticipation Quiver
The upright tail will quiver just as if the cat is spray-marking only no urine will be deposited. This non-spray quiver is one displayed when a cat is anticipating something positive such as a meal or a treat. You’ll also know it’s a happy quiver and not a spray-marking quiver because the cat’s eyes will remain open, in fact, she’ll probably be looking at you since you’re the source of whatever yummy treat she’s about to receive.
Relaxed Slight Horizontal
A relaxed cat may walk through her territory with her tail held in a slightly horizontal position. It’s important to take all signals into consideration when evaluating whether this is relaxation or not. The cat will have a relaxed body posture and the tail will not appear stiff.
A tail held low or as the cat walks or stands can indicate she is a very unhappy camper. This tail position is to be taken seriously because it could indicate aggression if you approach or try to initiate any interaction. A cat who is fearful and doesn’t want to be noticed will also walk around with a lowered tail. Her body will be positioned lower to the ground as well as she navigates around a room in an attempt to retreat to safety.
If a cat holds her tail between her legs or tucked under her body she is very fearful. Something in her immediate environment is making her feel threatened.
You may notice your cat wraps her tail around her paws when she sits or naps. This could be a display indicating that although she may feel relaxed she would prefer not to engage. She may also feel unsure. You’ll have to observe other body language signals in addition to the tail to try to determine whether the cat is comfortable and just preferring not to interact or whether she is feeling nervous.
Puffed Up Tail
This indicates your cat is afraid and feels threatened. Cats really prefer to take the option to retreat rather than fight so when in a threatening situation, they often try to “puff” themselves up to look larger and more menacing than their opponents. When puffed up, the tail resembles a bottle brush.
The tail will also be puffed up when arched. The cat feels a direct threat and is prepared to do battle. This display can be either a sign of defensive or offensive aggression. She will also arch her back and stand very straight-legged to maximize size. Her hope is that the opponent will think better of attacking and will choose to back down but she’ll fight if needed. With young kittens who are just learning how to interact you may see this puffed up tail posture as they play with each other but without any hissing or signs of aggression.
This is often seen when the cat is watching prey. The twitching may be her way of trying to contain her excitement. The more intense the excitement, the faster the twitching. The movement may initially start as a little swish and then accelerate into outright twitching.
Whether it’s a slow or fast lash, this is an indication of irritation. You may be petting your cat and she reaches her tolerance level or maybe you’re brushing her and she’s trying to tell you she has had enough. The lashing may almost look like the wagging tail you see with dogs but make no mistake about it – your cat is not happy when the tail is going back and forth that way. The cat is giving you a very clear signal to back off. Your cat may also thump the tail as well as lash it.
This one is my favorite. Two cats may wrap their tails around each other and this display is a sign of friendship and affection. This is the equivalent of humans shaking hands or putting their arms around each other. You may notice your cat even does this with you when she stretches out next to you. Pay attention to whether her tail casually drapes across your arm or leg. Consider it a sign of affection.
Remember to Take in the Whole Picture
While the cat’s tail is such an expressive body part it’s easy to misread one body language signal so pay attention to what the entire body is saying as well as taking the environment into consideration. Learning more about animal body language and signals can be a huge help in strengthening the bond you share and increasing your pet’s level of trust and security.
Need More Information?
For more information on cat behavior and training, refer to any of the books by best-selling author Pam Johnson-Bennett. Books are available on our website, through your favorite online retailer and at bookstores everywhere.