A cat’s tail plays an important role in balancing and can be used as a counterbalance when jumping or making sharp turns. But there’s far more to the cat’s tail than movement alone – a cat’s tail can express mood and intent or act as an invitation of a warning. A cat with its tail stuck up high in the air is confident and content. A cat that’s particularly pleased to see you may add a little wiggle. A question mark curve at the end of the tail can indicate a somewhat more cautious interest. A cat with a lowered tail may be feeling defensive or aggressive, while a thrashing tail suggests irritability or agitation. The “witch’s cat” look, with tail fully bristled and erect (often accompanied by an arched back and some hissing), means, as you might expect, “I’m really annoyed”.Human hair can stand on end when we are cold or experience strong emotions such as anger and fear, but, let’s face it, our coats are not much to write home about, so the result is just some little Goosebumps, rather than the more impressive display of a cat whose heckles are raised. Fighting is a risky undertaking, so most animals prefer to avoid direct confrontation with an enemy or competitor. One way of achieving this is to make themselves appear much bigger than they really are, so any potential foe is intimidated into backing down. Cats do this magnificently by fluffing out their fur, particularly along their tail and spine. The technical term for this is piloerection and it’s an involuntary reaction to stressful situations.
The tail is an extension of the spine and contains sensitive nerve endings. It is especially helpful for agile, athletic cats, which rapidly change direction at speed and need precise balance at a height. It’s a strong visual indication of a cat’s mood and intention from a safe distance – ideal for wildcats in long savannah grass.
An upright “flagpole” tail conveys confidence and an eagerness to greet you. A low tail suggests the cat is tentative, anxious, or is stalking prey. It’s a breed trait in Persians but can also be a sign of spinal disease or trauma.Movement.
Calm, inquisitive cats may loosely swish their tail through the air in slow, graceful, fluid movements. Abrupt, rhythmic movements, such as tip-flicking, side-to-side wagging, and thrashing, are escalating signs of agitation. The faster the tail, the greater the tension.
Signs of a happy tail: A chilled-out, “happy” cat’s tail is loosely held away from their body, somewhere between horizontal and upright. When the tail is completely upright and either curled at the tip or quivering, it’s likely that the cat is overjoyed to see you. If it’s fluffed up like a bottlebrush, the cat is trying to look bigger. That signals fear – so back off!
Tail Mood Guage.
- Overjoyed tip curl – Tail upright with a curled or quivering tip – may progress to wrapping around your legs.
- Friendly upright tail – Tail held straight up and possibly an enthusiastic quiver.
- Neutral relaxed tail – Loose horizontal tail with slow and graceful swishing.
- Low tail – Covert situations such as stalking prey, anxiety, pain, injury, illness, Persian breed’s trait.
- Tucked-in tail – Tail held close to the body – apprehension, fear, pain, illness.
- Tip-flicking tail – Tail tip flicking and twitching – agitation.
- Thrashing tail – Tail wagging or thumping – fear, frustration, and rage.
Watch your cat’s tail in different situations, but don’t focus on it entirely. It’s only one part of the whole communication picture, which can change in the blink of an eye. It’s all too easy to make assumptions or give things labels, but the key to successful cat watching is to keep a cool head, look at the full picture, and consider the cat’s behavior in context. Take an objective view and assess what you see, before coloring events with an interpretation. For example, if your elderly cat stops greeting you with an upright tail a knee-jerk response would be “My cat’s getting cranky with old age.” The cool-headed assessment would be, “My cat sleeps a lot, is stiff when they get up, moves more slowly, pees in front of the litter-box, and has matted fur – they’re overdue check-up from the vet.”
Film Your Cat.
However closely you watch your cat and their interactions, it’s easy to miss the nuances of cat “chats” in real time. If you’re serious about developing your cat watching skills, filming them in different scenarios and watching it back in slow motion or with freeze-frame gives you the chance to study the subtle signs in detail.
If we notice what we consider to be “bad” behavior, without understanding a cat’s way of thinking and responding to things, it can be tempting to launch in and try to stop it. But shouting at your cat or squirting them with water will only make them stressed or fearful, which can make matters worse; staying calm and measured will help ease tension and defuse the situation.