We all know that dogs communicate with their tails, and we’ve all got a reasonably good idea of the difference between a wagging tail and a lowered one. But what about cats? They’ve got a reputation for being more mysterious and hard to read than dogs, but does that reputation stand up? In a word, no. Cats communicate with us constantly, sometimes using their ears, eyes, and body posture, but more often than not with their tail. If you want to know what your cat is thinking, stop staring deeply into their eyes and check out what’s happening on the other end instead. It’s not always easy, but the more you learn to understand their body language, the sooner you’ll be able to work out when they’re happy, sad, in pain, or even about to attack. Here’s everything you need to know about cat tail language.
The Tail Positions
If you want to know what your cat’s feeling, just look at how they’re holding their tail:
Position: Straight, Upright
If there’s one thing every cat owner wants to see more of, it’s a straight, upright tail held high. As clubpet.com notes, a cat with its tail raised is feeling confident, cheerful, and happy to be approached. It’s how kittens approach their mother, and how a mother will encourage her kittens to follow her. According to Catster, the best way to react to this kind of tail position is with play, cuddles, and treats. Just be sure not to make any sudden movements – no matter how confident your cat is feeling, they can still startle easily.
Position: Raised with an Angle
If your cat’s tail is raised at an angle, they might be feeling a little unsure of something, such as a new visitor to the house. It’s not a threatening position, and once the cat has sniffed around and made sure that there’s nothing to be frightened about, they’ll switch into friendly mode with a raised, straight tail.
Position: Curled in a Question Mark
According to PetMD, an upright tail curled into a question mark at the end is a sign that your cat is happy and approaching amicably. This is a great time for interaction and petting, although resist the temptation to stroke their tail and stick to giving their chin and ears a scratch instead.
When a cat feels frightened, anxious, or even aggressive, they’ll typically lower their tail to the floor. If they’ve lowered it enough to tuck it between their legs, then they may either be in pain or suffering from extreme anxiety. Most cats don’t want to be touched when they’re distressed, so avoid petting them and deal with the cause of their anxiety instead.
Position: Wrapped Around Their Front Paws
If your cat wraps their tail around their front paws, it could mean that they are either feeling insecure and don’t want to be approached, or that they’re feeling calm, relaxed, and open to interaction. The key to working out which of these two states is in play is to check out the rest of their body language. If their ears are turned and their posture is stiff, something is troubling them. Walk away and try to neutralize whatever it is that’s upsetting them. If their body is relaxed and their eyes are either closed or half-closed, you’re dealing with a blissed-out cat who won’t say no to a chin rub.
If you see a cat with an arched back and a puffed tail, keep away. Cats adopt this position when they’ve been severely frightened, whether from a loud, explosive noise or another animal. The puffed-up tail is simply an attempt to make themselves seem larger and more intimidating to the object of their fear. Although it’s tempting to try and pick your cat up and soothe them, this will only make the situation worse and could even lead to them lashing out.
Position: Wrapped Around Their Body
A cat that sits or lies with their tail wrapped around their body could be feeling frightened or even unwell. Keep away and try to minimize any external stressors. If they continue to assume the same posture over several days, contact your vet to rule out an injury or illness.
If your cat is curling their tail around your legs, consider it the equivalent of a hug. It means your cat is feeling affectionate and demonstrative, and in the mood for some interaction.
Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails?
Like dogs, cats wag their tails to convey a specific emotion. Each movement represents a different emotional state, varying from annoyance to happiness. Some of the most common types of tail movement you’ll come across include:
If you notice the end of your cat’s tail twitching, then it could mean one of two things. They’re either in the middle of a good game or hunting session, or they’re feeling irritated. If they’re not playing or hunting, leave them be – approaching a cat when they’re feeling frustrated or annoyed rarely ends well.
If your cat starts thumping and thrashing their tail against the ground, be wary. Something is bothering them to the point that they’re getting irritated and annoyed. The behavior is meant as a warning to others to keep their distance. If it happens while your petting them, stop – they’ve had enough and if you carry on, there’s going to be consequences.
Cats might be loveable balls of fur, but they’re also predators, and like all predators, they engage in predatory behavior like stalking and pouncing. When they find something worthy of their attention (it could be a toy, another animal, or even something outside in the yard), they’ll focus on it intently, crouch low, and begin swishing their tail. It’s natural, enriching, and a sign of a perfectly focused, perfectly happy cat. Providing they’re not about to pounce on your foot, it’s best to leave them be.
If your cat’s tail begins to quiver, it usually means they’re feeling excited. On the other hand, if they’re doing it while backing up against a wall or another vertical surface, they might be urine marking.