Skip to content

Understanding Your Cat’s Body Language: The Tail

April 22, 2013

Photo courtesy fermicat

And last, but of course, not least in this series of Understanding Your Cat’s Body Language, we get to the tail.

Personally, I think a cat’s tail signals some of the coolest body language signs, you just have to understand them.

A cat’s tail is tremendously communicative, thanks to how mobile it is. Just think about all of the different types of tail movements you’ve seen: It can be raised up and down, sweep from side to side, move slowly or quickly, curl around us or them, trash and twitch, among other things.

And that’s just the movements. How the hair stands or lays on the tail can also be an indicator of mood: the hair can lay flat or bristle up like a brush.

So what does all of this mean? There are a number of great explanations and visuals, like the visual below from messybeast.com, which I think will help.

2013-09-28_0944

Let’s go through the examples above, so we can all understand them a bit better:

Tail straight up: This signals that your cat is feeling friendly or content. Usually your cat’s tail will stand straight up when he’s around you. Mother cats hold their tails upright when she wants her kittens to follow her (it may also help her kittens see her, depending on where they are). Similarly, when kittens run to greet their mother (or pet parents), their tails will rise straight up, too.

Tail raised back at an angle: This is a non-threatening gesture that means the cat is simply unsure about something. Your cat may do this while sniffing new friends that have come to visit. Usually, if they pass your cat’s test, your cat will soon raise his tail in friendliness.

Tail raised up, swishing: Large, dramatic tail swishes generally convey a powerful emotion. This can signal a derisive attitude – that your cat is upset or wants to be left alone. Your cat will likely do this as he walks past you in acknowledgement, but to show you that his mind is on other things. Some people call it the “So what!” or “Forget you!” move.

Photo courtesy wishymom (Stephanie Wallace Photography).

Tail straight up, quivering: A quivering tail is a very good sign – it means that your cat is very excited to see you. It’s a very friendly greeting that you’ll likely get when you walk in the door at the end of the day or if he greets you when you get out of bed in the morning.

Similarly, a cat who is very excited to see you may also pull his tail forward over his back (Ellie is known to do this). While this may seem like a bizarre thing to do, the behavior really makes sense to our cats – it’s their way of inviting us to sniff their anal glands, their way of being friendly.

Tail raised up, hooked at the tip: When I was little, I was taught that when a cat hooks the tip of his tail, it looks like a question mark – which is exactly how your cat feels. He’s friendly (hence the tail being raised), but he’s unsure of something.

Tail held horizontally behind the cat: This neutral position that can convey a few feelings. Your cat may be alert, confident, relaxed or amicable. It can definitely depend on the situation and the rest of your cat’s body language.

Hook in base of tail: Also called the “inverted U” or “horseshoe” tail, this behavior signals defensive aggression. Usually, your cat’s tail will be bristled too. You’ll often see this in your cat when he has the “kitty crazies” at the end of the day. He may also arch his back and crab walk a bit, especially if another cat has angered him, or if he’s feeling feisty about something.

Thrashing tail: This could mean a number of things – look at your cat’s other body language to find out exactly how he may be feeling. A trashing tail, sweeping from side to side erratically, could convey one of several things, including:

  • Intense interest if your cat is focusing on something, like a bird outside, or if he’s about to pounce on a toy (prey).
  • Ecstasy if your cat is really enjoying a grooming session.
  • Anger if the tail is thumping loudly on the floor.
  • An invitation to another cat to play.
  • High excitement or aggression if the tail trashes violently.

Photo courtesy Daniele Nicolucci photography.

Bristled tail: When your cat’s tail puffs up like a bottle brush, you can be pretty sure that your cat feels threatened and has become defensively aggressive. Your cat may bristle his tail if you startle him, if he’s scared, or if another cat (or person) angers him. He’ll likely try to escape the situation if possible, but he may also stay to defend himself if necessary. Like when a cat bristles the hair on his back, this action is meant to make himself look bigger, in an attempt to make the aggressor leave him alone.

Tail held low and straight: When your cat is holding his tail diagonally down, he’s likely feeling aggressive – or that he soon could be ticked off. Again, read your cat’s other body language and watch the tail to see what it develops into.

Tail held between the legs: This is a submissive move that’s likely trying to convey that your cat is upset or wants to be left alone. Unlike the bristled tail, a submissive tail can make a cat look smaller and less threatening to another aggressive cat.

Twitching tail tip: Sometimes just the tip of your cat’s tail will twitch. This usually signals that he’s alert and concentrating on watching something that interests him – like a bug or bird outside. Your cat may also twitch his tail if he’s playing and approaching “prey.”

Tail-twine: Personally, this is one of my favorites. Cats will entwine their tails around other cats’ tails, other objects, and of course, us! It’s their friendly way of marking us as theirs, and potentially trying to influence us to give them what they want, like attention or food!

Which tail behaviors do you see most often in your cat? Which is your favorite? Please share in the comments!

Advertisements
50 Comments leave one →
  1. Season permalink
    August 21, 2013 9:29 pm

    I’m finding it very difficult to work out my cats mood even after reading these charts. For example, he will jump up on my knee, tail thrashing, but he shows no signs of being angry/annoyed, and frequently follows that with purring. Even now, after being on my knee, I moved him onto another chair so I can stretch my leg, and his tail is stuck out, and the tip is thrashing. But he seems content.

    His tail is also often hooked, but he’s always comfortable with his surroundings, and he is regularly in a happy mood.

    Is it possible this can just depend on the cat? I’m sure my cat is happy, or content, even when the signs seem to point toward him being angry, especially when he’s the one who comes to me and wants me to follow him around the house.

    By the way, I’m not doubting any of this! I’m just trying to get a better understanding myself, and find out whether or not this can vary between cats. Because this little guy seems very happy, and I’d imagine if he were upset/angry now, he would have left the room. As you can imagine, it can be very confusing when I read he might be irritated/angry, but he’s relaxed and purring.

    • August 26, 2013 9:08 pm

      Hi Season –
      You’ve made a great point. While these behaviors cover most cats, you’re definitely correct in that some cats simply do things their own way. I think your best bet is simply to become as familiar with his behaviors — as you are — so you can best understand his own body language.
      Thanks for sharing!

    • Morgan permalink
      June 4, 2015 9:17 pm

      My cat thrashes tail too. Some times he seems annoyed, but other times hes just laying there, im not keeping him, tail banging around. I keep looking it up, thinking he doesnt like it here, and hes not happy. Because if that was the case, I would find him a new home. I dont want him to be unhappy.

    • Nabila Majid permalink
      September 28, 2015 3:14 am

      Cats that thrash their tail left and right could just be in a playful mood. My cat does that when she wants to play with me or the other cat. To me that sounds like the cat is excited. The chart is confusing as my cats do some of those things. in different moods but not the ones mentioned above. If your cat is upset or angry, its east to tell. They will avoid you and hiss or growl. But I think all cats are different.

  2. Patricia permalink
    October 16, 2013 5:48 pm

    When my 3 year old cat is being extremely affectionate and so demanding that I drop everything and pet or brush him, once I begin, his tail bristles as he purrs and rubs up against me. He seems to be in ecstasy with affection. I can’t find any info about a cat whose tail bristles with affection, but his definitely does. He is always affectionate and playful and has never scratched or bitten me, even in play. He is the most loving, gentle cat I have ever had. Anyone know anything about why his tail fluffs out when he is being loving?

    • Jacqueline Birch. permalink
      January 8, 2014 9:13 am

      Our cats do that also. I call it the”lover tail”. I have had cats since birth, two Siamese cats slept with me in my crib. My take on it is that they are so happy that they become over stimulated, hence the bristling of the tail. They might even bite but not very hard.

    • Rusty permalink
      June 7, 2014 7:30 pm

      I have a total of four cats, each having their own particular personalities. One of the three girls we have was a rescue cat, and she has some very odd habits. She’s a particularly vocal cat when she wants something but is generally aloof and while not unfriendly, just likes to be left to her own devices… EXCEPT when someone is going to toilet, because THEN she wants attention, and she mews and “talks” at the door until she’s let in, then winds about your feet, purring softly and rapidly, tail up and bristled at the very base. She’s super affectionate and even jumps into your lap like this, will rub against your hands, purr, and very gently gnaw at your fingertips every now and again.

      We got our fourth cat not too long after getting her, and she is super affectionate all the time, and even does the same “buttfluff” (as I call it) as our rescue female when she’s super happy and cuddly. Even more strange, our first female cat who never used to do that with her tail has recently started doing it too!

      Our original male cat though couldnt’ care less and his ways haven’t changed at all. He’s still as cuddly, sedentary, dignified and lazy as always. So it seems just the three girls picked it up from the third cat. I too haven’t found anything on it but I’m guessing it’s an excitement thing. Maybe they’re just that happy!

    • Grids permalink
      April 3, 2016 7:05 am

      My cat does this. she loves having the bottom of her back scratched. She sticks her bum In the air then puffs her tail up. lol thought it was just my cat that was odd x

  3. Ellen wright permalink
    December 3, 2013 2:19 pm

    My 10 month old feral kitten came home as usual but strang behaviour she would not at or drink urinated in hr food hissed at me and then went into cupboard for hours –when sh came out she went outside and has gone missing for nearly 2 days –i felt she might have hurt herself and i was preparing to take her to vet any ideas 😦

    • December 5, 2013 6:57 am

      Hi Ellen,
      I’d recommend taking your cat to the vet if you haven’t yet. Only your vet will be able to figure out what’s going on. Good luck!

    • Nabila Majid permalink
      September 28, 2015 3:20 am

      Well. U saw her acting off and not eating and still u let her out and your asking on here? U should know cats who stop eating could mean the is ill. I think u should find the cat first and take the cat straight to the vet.

  4. deeksha permalink
    May 15, 2014 3:20 am

    Three months ago, a cat came to our home and after some time their was one kitten with her. now , it seems that they are fighting with each other……. but as i read that when their tails is straight , they are being friendly. they rum and jump on each other . can u please tell me that they play or fight ……………………………………………………………….. and i wanted to know that what do cats eat ?

    • Nabila Majid permalink
      September 28, 2015 3:24 am

      Cats do play fight. If u hear any of the cats hiss, growl, shout, then it means they are not play fighting. I allow my cats to play fight and only stop them if one of them is being too rough. Cats eat cat food. I give my cats Felix cat food- as good as it looks and gocat biscuits.

  5. Jamie Blair permalink
    July 7, 2014 4:03 pm

    Thank u but… if my cat holds her tail down between her legs does it mean she is sick?
    I am really worried about her

  6. October 4, 2014 7:14 pm

    I have one male cat, and his tail is always sticking up with a little curve at the top. I think it’s cute how he does this. I also have two female cats, and their tails are almost always pointing downward, but in a relaxed way. Does this have any particular meaning?

  7. Lisa permalink
    November 9, 2014 8:31 am

    When my cat is laying down and being pet, he just moves the tip of his tail gently. Does that mean anything?

  8. February 11, 2015 1:11 am

    So recently this just happened. I was laying down in bed browsing on my phone as I noticed how my cat was acting. He was laying down with his head on my bed and his back arched and his tail/feet tucked underneath while he was sleeping. I am very concerned ! Could this be because he is in pain? I never seen him do this before . This is the very first time he has done this. I tried looking up online what this could be but gives other topics showing for results and nothing like this situation that took place with my cat . Anyone know what this could mean ? Any ideas/advice!? I’m just trying to understand and figure this out so I can help my little man 💚💚💚 :*

    • Nabila Majid permalink
      September 28, 2015 3:32 am

      Is the cat eating like normal? Is he playing like normal? Check his breathing while he sleeping. 20-30 breaths per min is normal. Of its over 40 while he sleeping he needs a trip to the vet. But if the above is normal and he does not a act off or strange otherwise. I wouldn’t be worried. But if u see him do this occasionally it wouldn’t hurt to ask the vet.

  9. February 24, 2015 6:44 am

    I was wondering if you could give me some advice on our cats behaviors? Our new furry friend arrived to our house in September at six weeks old. Since then he has been a delight and has brightened everyone’s day. When he started to grow however there was a slight change in his characteristics. There was a lot more random biting on backs of ankles, legs, and mainly arms and hands. We thought that this would probably be normal for a cat who is growing as he needs to strengthen his teeth etc. but this has not stopped and it seems like any time a hand goes near him he will pounce and bite aggressively. I have been reading about personality and tail movements and it doesn’t seem like he is showing signs of defensiveness or aggression. Most of his tail movements consist of trashing, twitching, and pointing upwards. He has also yet to let out a proper meow and has been doing small squeaking sounds when he becomes interested with a shadow or a reflection for example.Any help on this would be greatly appreciated.

    • Barry permalink
      March 6, 2015 4:34 am

      To “Random Rants”, A consultation with a Vet might be in order. The cat seems to be responding in a way that is completely natural in his mind, to something in his environment that is urking him. I have had cats all of my life and have never had two that were alike. Before the vet visit, you might want to try some very active play that involves you and the cat. Perhaps try to bring other family members in on the play. After the play a treat of some kind. This might (and I emphasize the word “might”) achieve three positive outcomes:
      1. Cat builds a closer bond with members of the family as long as he is stimulated by the play rather than frustrrated by it.
      2. Exercises the cat and gets his energy level down a bit.
      3. Creates in the cats mind an association between play (a positive activity) and the treat.

    • Nabila Majid permalink
      September 28, 2015 3:36 am

      Is anyone in the house scaring him? Or threatening him in any way? If he feels threatened he will attack if he is scared. Also when he first came, did u lot play with him using ur hands etc? As this could be normal to him if you did. He sounds afraid to me. I think you need to check everyone’s behaviour towards him and see what is triggering it. And sorting it out. Also do you have a scratch post? Best to buy one so he can use that to strengthen his claws instead of your hand. If this goes on still, its best to get him checked up. Cats also get aggressive if they are ill.

    • Bill Miller permalink
      December 30, 2015 2:36 pm

      If cats are biting in dead earnest they’ll sink their fangs in, deep, and hurt you. They have sharp teeth and surprisingly powerful jaws. I let my cat bite and claw my hands in play occasionally, which I suppose is a mistake. He draws a little blood sometimes but my hands are hard and scarred from work so I don’t mind much. He never actually sinks his fangs in though. He’s also smart enough not to try that kind of play with my wife. If your cat plays too roughly, let him know in a firm but non-startling way. They tend to like to play pretty rough if they think they can get away with it or that you enjoy it.

  10. Barry permalink
    March 6, 2015 5:09 am

    More for “Randon Rants”

    In my underschooled observations I have concluded that it is sometimes easy to think that a cat is being agressive when, in fact they are merely playing. Some cats, including “Buddy” the one who lives with us now, play in a forceful way. One way to tell the difference between aggression because of anger, or fear and simple good natured rough play is to watch the cats ears and listen to the verbalizations. “Buddy” is now some seven years old and has lived with us for all but about four months of his life. When he plays it is like wrestling with a revved up chain saw. But he has never hissed or growled at us or retracted his ears, not ever. Another way to tell is to judge the damage he is intending to do. A mature cat with claws can do a lot of damage if they want to. “Buddy” has learned through our interactions that when he gets too rough he becomes somewhat unpopular around the house. So he has learned to bite but not hard.

    • NYCpanda permalink
      September 29, 2015 10:31 pm

      Yup, this. Unless you are doing something unkind to the cat – I sincerely hope not – he/she probably just wants to “play” as they would with a littermate. My cats have always done the same. Decide whether you’re OK with a cat that likes to roughhouse, and then either indulge them (which I do, put on a jacket or something and let ’em go nuts, they love it and it’s hilarious), or disengage when they start the behavior. Either way, they’ll learn.

  11. Barry permalink
    March 6, 2015 7:56 am

    Here is a general comment about the chart of cat’s tail positions from “Messybeast”. I find these charts very informative and helpful. I think you can enhance the value they contribute by matching the cat’s tail message with other messages that the cat is simultaneously sending. What are they doing with their ears? Are the pupils dilated? Does the cat appear to be waiting and watching or are they fleeing or approaching? I do understand that this is all part of cat dogma (pun intended).

  12. Ken C permalink
    July 3, 2015 11:09 am

    I’v had 5 cats throughout my life. Most if them have liked having their tails petted. My current cat likes it if she is standing up for me to pet her back and grip around her tail gently and pet up to the tip. She also likes it if I grip just a little tighter near the base and lift her back feet off off the ground for just a second. I had one cat who would be resting and if I talked about her to my wife, the end if her tail would wag! One of my cats loved to lay there, purr and wack me with her tail. I’v never had a cat that didn’t like their tail played with gently.

  13. Peyton permalink
    October 30, 2015 1:30 am

    I have a male kitten about 2 half months. We were laying,on the bed and he stood up and streched over my legs, all of a sudden he got extreamlty close to me shivering in a little ball and his tail was super puffed up. It was almost like he saw something that scared him. I’m really scared for him. Can anyone guide me. Help me understand what happend.

  14. Barbara permalink
    November 28, 2015 7:48 am

    I have a 1 1/2 yo kitten… very active!! The tail swishes a lot.. Is she just playful.. or mad at me.. she isn’t very affectionate and is already spoiled rotten!!!

  15. Shazzi permalink
    March 17, 2016 7:18 pm

    I would like to add another one. When I scratch the base of my baby’s tail it bends to the left in a right angle. And the rest of her body says she is in ecstasy.

  16. Kacey permalink
    March 21, 2016 3:32 pm

    My cat smokey rubs his tail around me when it’s hungry all the time and when I pet him he twitches his tail and my cat toby always has his tail up

  17. Dart permalink
    March 28, 2016 2:24 pm

    I have a short hair, white cat with a very long tail that is thicker at the base than most I have seen and an attitude to go with it. She likes to walk up and randomly smack my older male Maine Coon for no other reason than he may have got to close to me. She is very jealous. Her tale is always straight up in the air when I let her outside for her 10m of exercise, almost like a hound dog. She has a strange demeanor that needs a combination of the above body language to describe her. She absolutely loves it when I gently tap her on the very end of her back where it meets her tail. The funny thing is she will meow like she is kind of complaining but can hardly get it out because of how hard she is purring. The cutest thing is to hear a meow that comes out with a heavy purring in the background.

  18. April 2, 2016 5:48 pm

    My cat follows me and stands watching her tail quivering she also thrashes her tail and purrs at tbe same time mostly when shes laid on me

  19. April 2, 2016 5:50 pm

    My cat follows me about and her tail quivers also when laid on me her tail thrashes as she purrs

  20. Kyia permalink
    April 27, 2016 5:20 pm

    After a cat bit my cats tail it has been down and is moving side to side but everytime he get up he makes a loud and very long cry what’s wrong with him??

  21. May 12, 2016 1:15 am

    Can’t believe how stupid cat owners are. This is a major sensory antena transmission capability.

  22. Kirsty permalink
    July 6, 2016 3:35 pm

    My male cat, he is about ten, likes to lie next to me and often does so purring happily. All body language suggest he is both relaxed and happy, his eyes are closed, he is purring and laid on his side, often on my hand, his ears are ‘floppy’ and hs content enough to put his head on the bed or my arm but then there is the tail. He thrashes it. loudly and very hard. I have tried to placate him by stroking him, or i stop i i am and he starts thrashing but often there seems to be no cause. he can he next to me for an our and suddenly he begins. It is frustrating because he almost always manages to thrash it against my noisy metal headboard. Is this normal behavior?
    It actually only began when we adopted another male cat from friends who were immigrating. Though my cat has always been with his brother, he does not get on with the new cat, who is about the same age. I keep the other cat out my room so that mine has his own space that he can always retreat to.
    Is there anything i should be concerned about when it comes to this tail?

  23. July 11, 2016 3:53 pm

    What if your cat does not have a tail. Then how do you know.

  24. September 15, 2016 6:47 pm

    What if my cat has no tail ?
    My adult cat has nothing for a tail amd my baby has half a tail…they were both born this way and im familiar with the tail lango ☺ but this has me stumped haha no punn intended btw

  25. September 18, 2016 10:24 pm

    Thanks so much for this, new kitty in the home and she’s mostly kept the tail straight up so I was worried she was upset or something. Good to know if it’s the most commonly displayed it’s probably content. Tg for kitties hee hee.

  26. Livia permalink
    September 26, 2016 3:11 am

    i have 6 pets: 2 kittens, 1 cat, 2 dogs, and 1 puppy, as i am writing this, one of my 2 kittens is laying down with half of is belly showing, head on paws and continuallyblinking slowly. His tail is out and not moving.
    what does that mean?

  27. December 20, 2016 9:08 pm

    Lol Livia i have 6 pets too but just cats (4kittens and 2 cats ) 😉 thank you for the post, awesome sharing

  28. Ally3 permalink
    January 5, 2017 9:05 am

    I’ve noticed that when ever my cat is very playful and interested in my goofy entertainments he would literally tape his tail all the way to his back. Maybe a sign of trust and playfulness.

  29. Marain permalink
    January 15, 2017 2:26 am

    When I arrive home from work, I park my car on the street and have to open a big metal gate and walk down a 30 yard/meter path to the front door. My cat, Alexander, always seems to know when I’ve arrived home and he always walks up the path to meet me half-way. A few yards before we meet he begins to swish his tail in a big way from side to side. I’ve always interpreted this that he is very happy to see me. I always bend down and pet him and say nice things to him. After this, he starts to lead me down the path and always stops at a tree root and begins to sharpen his claws on the root, with his rear end up in the air. This also seems like an expression of love and happiness that I’m home. I always say “Look at you!” and “What a sweet kitty” when he does this.

  30. Doris Allen permalink
    January 30, 2017 12:20 pm

    My cat uses her tail in what I can only interpret as a counting game. I am holding her and bracing her from falling. One of us starts tapping with fingers or tail and the other follows suit. She prefers to lead with one or two thumps and I follow with the same. We have gotten up to 4 or 5 counts. She is clearly using it as a game, though she is ex-feral and has never played.

Trackbacks

  1. Tails – Cat Photography Melbourne » Melbourne Cat Photographer
  2. body language – catfromtheblog
  3. Feline Facts – Write Out N the Open
  4. Visual design of a virtual pet – Tom Battey
  5. What your cats tail could be telling you – BeTeenie
  6. 5 Signs You Have a Happy Cat that Loves and Adores You

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: