- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Cat behavior can be so confusing. When I was a kid, my small gray cat, Bibby, was my best buddy. She was the type of cat who asked to be petted, but after about 17 seconds she dug her claws into my arm to indicate that she’d had enough.
If I’d only known that her tail could have given me a warning about her mercurial mood, I might have been able to avoid some of those flesh wounds.
To sort out Bibby’s behavior and avoid further peril with new cat friends, I asked Seattle veterinarian Dr. Erin Perotti-Orcutt for some tips on how to tell what a cat is thinking and feeling, particularly when it comes to the language of their tail.
The way your cat moves her tail can tell you a lot. A high tail with a quick quivering motion can mean, “I’m so happy to see you!” and a fluffed tail with an arched back definitely means, “Back off.” Tail cues are a great place to start when learning how to read a cat’s body language.
Keep in mind that cats express themselves with their whole bodies, so watch her tail, along with her ears, eyes, and body posture.
One thing is for sure, dog tail rules don’t apply to cats. A cat wagging her tail is a sign of irritation, not a friendly greeting.
Your cat’s tail can tell you a lot about her mood, particularly when she’s introduced to something new. “Tail behavior can be very helpful when you’re trying to figure out if two cats in a home get along,” Dr. Perotti-Orcutt explains. “Sometimes an owner interprets lack of overt fighting as the cats getting along, but really they might be barely tolerating each other.”
The same is true for figuring out whether a cat and a dog are getting along, she says. “Being able to tell if the cat is showing fear versus showing play behavior can be helpful.”
Of course, you also want to be tuned in during playtime. A playful tail swish can turn quickly into a faster “attack mode” whipping-tail motion. The moment you see the cat switch modes, you should switch modes, too.
Being tuned into your cat’s moods and behavior can take time and lots of observation, and it will strengthen your bond and make you much better roommates for each other.
With the help of Dr. Perotti-Orcutt and her excellent veterinary research resources, I put together this quick guide to what your cat might be telling you with her tail. As every cat parent knows, cats are individuals and getting to know their personalities through their tail posture, facial expressions, and body language takes time, commitment, and curiosity.
Tail held high: “Feeling good.” A cat who feels happy, confident, and relaxed will hold her tail high in the air, proudly displaying the full length of her tail.
Hook at the tip of the tail: “Hello, friend!” A hook at the tip of the tail is a friendly gesture, an invitation to approach the cat for a personal greeting. In clinical speak, a cat is displaying “intention of an amicable interaction.”
Tail wrapped around something: “I really like you.” A cat will wrap her tail around a person or another cat as a sign of friendship and trust.
Swishing Tail: “I like this thing.” A tail swishing or wagging slowly from side to side indicates that the cat is focused on an object, like a toy, a food treat, or a playmate. A swishing tail usually comes before a playful pounce. But beware! A swishing tail can also be an early sign of cranky feelings. If you’re not sure, check her ears—forward-facing ears are relaxed, ears turned backward are a sign of irritation or aggression.
Tail Wrapped Around Body: “Just keeping an eye on things.” A cat sitting or laying with her tail wrapped around her is an alert cat, scanning her surroundings for whatever might be going on.
Tail Held Straight Behind Body: “I’m interested… keep talking.” When your cat is standing or walking with her tail held directly behind her, straight or with a slight curve, it can mean that she’s curious about what’s going on. But watch closely. A very similar tail posture can express uncertainty and might quickly turn into a defensive behavior.
Relaxed Body, Slow Moving, or Tapping Tail: “You might think I’m sleeping…” If your cat slowly sways or taps the tip of her tail while napping or lazing about, it’s a sign that she’s relaxed but paying attention to her surroundings. Even if her eyes are closed, her ears, whiskers, and nose are tuned in. Her tail is “languorously moving and possessed of tone,” as Karen Overall describes in the textbook Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. I love it when vets write in poetic terms about their beloved pets.
Puffed or Bristled Tail: “Back off!” A tail held straight up and puffed out is the universal cat sign for a frightened or aggressive cat. This one is easy to read since it’s usually accompanied by growling, hissing, and/or showing off her sharp teeth.
Tail Tucked Between Legs: “Oh no, this can’t be good.” A tucked tail is the sign of a stressed, nervous, or submissive cat. When stressed, a cat will tuck her feet and tail away to keep them safe in case the litter hits the fan.
Tail Held Low: “I’m not so sure about this.” A cat holding her tail straight and pointing toward the ground is feeling suspicious, scared, or aggressive. It can be hard to tell sometimes because many cats, particularly Persians and other long hair cats, tend to walk with their tails in this position, even when they’re relaxed. For a cat you know well, you’ll be able to spot this behavior by her stiff tail and tense, guarded body.
Flicking the Tip of the Tail: “Cut it out.” When a cat becomes annoyed or overstimulated, her tail will go from relaxed to twitchy at the tip. This is a good time to stop petting her if you don’t want to get a warning nip from those sharp teeth. You might also see this behavior at the vet’s office or when a cat is meeting a new animal for the first time.
Tail Whipping Back and Forth: “I am not happy. At all.” A cat moving her tail quickly back and forth, like she’s trying to shoo a fly away, is an unhappy cat. She’s irritated, frustrated, stressed out, or just plain mad. Step away from the cat!
Some cats are pretty freaked out at the vet’s office, and that can give their vet a limited impression of the cat’s personality and behavior. Dr. Perotti-Orcutt explains that when she’s examining a cat, she takes the position of the cat’s tail into account, and she also pays close attention to the cat’s face, including their ears, whiskers, eye dilation and overall how they’re holding their bodies. But often, cats are showing some level of fear or anxiety when they’re at the vet.
Still feeling perplexed by your cat’s behavior?
Join the club! The mystery of cats is a big part of their appeal. Getting to know their individual styles and ways of communicating can lead to rewarding, lifelong friendships.