It’s a rare thing when a cat’s tail isn’t in motion. Though they don’t use them like dogs do–such as the helicopter wags you might get from a dog every time you walk in the door–tails are very important in a cat’s emotional expression. A tail is mainly a physical tool used for balance in a cat’s various innate acrobatics but it also tells you a lot about your kitty’s state of mind. Pay attention, because without a single word, your cat is most definitely telling you something with that beautiful, twitching tail.
What’s in a Cat’s Tail?
Cat’s tails are quite complex instruments. On average, a cat’s tail is about 12 inches long and it contains 19-23 vertebrae–10 percent of the bones in a kitty’s body. Cats’ tails are held together with a complex system of nerves, ligaments, and tendons that help it to assist with balance. Some of the tail nerves also help with hindquarter mobility, as well as elimination, so it’s important that a kitty’s tail is kept free of injury.
Cats that have tails injured by falls, accidents, or being pulled can experience severe pain, lose the ability to walk, and even become incontinent. If you are concerned that your kitty is experiencing any tail-related trauma or tail injury, check in with your vet. If your cat seems traumatized by you touching her tail, there’s a very simple solution–stop touching it. Some kitties are ultra-sensitive that way!
Do Cats Talk with Their Tails?
While a wagging tail likely means your kitty is concentrating, there are many other cat tail “doings” that are generally recognized as a sort of cat language. “Cats have very expressive tails, so tail position and movement can tell us a number of things,” Dr. Eloise Bright, a veterinarian based in North Ryde, Australia, tells PetMD.
Here are some cat tail “language” interpretations:
- Straight up: Usually this is the sign of a happy, outgoing, and confident cat. It’s like the cat version of a broad smile and firm handshake.
- Slightly Curled: The “question mark tail” indicates playfulness. If a kitty is giving you question mark tail, the question they’re likely asking is, “Are we gonna play already?”
- Tucked: If a kitty’s tail is tucked between its legs, this probably means your kitty is fearful of something in the environment. This includes other cats so a tail tuck can be a display of submission to a more dominant (or scary) kitty.
- Poofed: Like the hair standing up on the back of your neck, a kitty with phyllo-erect tail hairs is scared. The “poofing” of the tail is meant to make your kitty look bigger, and more formidable, in the eyes of the threat. Kittens do this a lot as pretty much everything is new and scary to them…once.
- Low: A tail carried low can indicate concern and possible aggressiveness, especially if it’s a kitty you don’t know or encounter outdoors. Some breeds, such as Persians, tend to carry their tails naturally low but in general, a low tail means you should watch yourself.
- Swishing: A gentle swish back and forth usually means your kitty is concentrating on something, and can be a tell-tale sign that they are about to pounce.
- Flicking: Furious side to side flicking likely means that kitty is irritated and usually precedes a good smack down. This would be a good time to keep your hands to yourself.
- Shaky: Shaky tail is an upright tail that also has quick little quivers. This is seen as an expression of happiness or excitement. Many kitties will give shaky tail at treat or brushing time, others do it when you walk in the door after being gone a while, some when you are on the toilet. No matter the when or why, return the love.
- Wrapped: A tail wrapped around you or another animal is a sign of love and companionship. Consider yourself blessed.
What if My Cat Doesn’t Have a Tail?
Some kitty breeds, such as the Manx, don’t have tails. Other kitties may not have tails (or just a little bit of tail) due to an injury or a birth or genetic defect. But just because these kitties don’t have tails to wag, doesn’t mean they can’t express their feelings. Cats also use their posture, ears, eyes, and voices to communicate so if you take the time, you can “learn” your kitty’s particular language.
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