Understanding Your Cat’s Body Language: The Tail
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.
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.
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.
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!