A cat’s tail is an amazing and beautiful thing. Not only is it an anatomical wonder, it’s an excellent tool for feline self-expression. Even the most obtuse of humans can learn the secrets of this behavior — “tail talk,” if you will — with a little observation, and your cat will love you even more if you can interpret her special sign language. Here are the facts behind some of my favorite cat tail signs and what they mean.
When Sin├®ad and Siouxsie were kittens, they’d come running up to me with their tails held high the minute I opened my apartment door. This would quickly be followed by purrs and head bonks all over my shoes. Nothing says, “OMG I love you so much and I’m so happy to see you!” quite like high-tailed kittens. It’s body language that needs little translation.
A cat that approaches you with an erect tail with a tiny hook at the end is saying, “I’m friendly and I’m also just a tiny bit tentative and curious. May I come to you?” I saw this a lot in my shelter cats, and my own kitty roommates do that when guests come over to visit. As soon as you say something like, “Hello, darling,” and reach out a hand, the tail straightens out and you’re greeted with head bonks and love.
If you’re petting your cat and you start seeing the tip of her tail twitch a little bit, that’s an early sign that your cat is getting overstimulated and wants you to back off. If you see the tip twitch, you should heed this polite request.
When I scold Bella for getting on the counter while I prepare her food, she hops onto the floor and does a single whole-tail twitch. I interpret this as the equivalent of a teenager’s smart-ass comment and reply with, “Don’t you twitch your tail at me, young lady!”
When Thomas climbs into my lap while I’m sitting at the computer, he either drapes himself over my arm or settles in for a snuggle and wraps his tail around my wrist. I call this a “tail hug” and I melt every time it happens.
When Bella gets startled, she jumps backwards and her tail instantly goes full vertical and all the fur stands on end. This is her equivalent of “Eek!” For her, it doesn’t seem to mean “I’m terrified” as much as “You shocked the hell out of me … and I kinda liked it!” When I see her in exclamation-point-tail mode, I gently stroke said tail and tell her, “Oh, Bella, what are you all fat-tailed for?” Then it’s time for skritches around the neck and ears as she slowly de-floofs.
Thomas absolutely loves to play tail tag with Bella. He flicks his tail back and forth, all the while looking at Bella with wide eyes. Bella gets all excited and starts smacking at his tail. Here’s a video of a tail tag game in action.
When my cats are stalking rodents or their favorite interactive toys, they hunker down with their tails stretched out behind them. The very end of their tails twitch just the tiniest bit, as if it’s the only way they have to discharge some of the adrenalin coursing through their bodies.
What are your favorite “tail talk” phrases? Share them in the comments. Bonus points if you have photos or videos of the tail talk in action.
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.