Cat Tail Language: What Your Cat’s Tail Is Telling You

Let's dive into understanding cat tail language — what the movements and positions of your cat’s most intriguing appendage mean.

a gray cat's tail on a white background
Talk to the tail! What is your cat's tail trying to tell you? Photography ©Tomwang112 | Thinkstock.

People who say cats aren’t very expressive and are impossible to gauge just don’t have a clue. A cat’s ears, eyes, body posture and, in particular, her tail, express exactly what she’s thinking and how she’s feeling. You just have to “listen” to cat tail language.

“Since cats are such different animals from us, understanding how they communicate isn’t something that comes naturally to humans,” says Kelly C. Ballantyne, D.V.M., D.A.C.V.B., clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana-Champaign. “It is important that all cat owners take the time to learn because understanding how cats communicate helps us to understand them better. Once we know their body language, we can read their emotions, identify situations that cause them distress or pleasure and even identify an illness sooner.”

Once you take the time to learn and understand cat tail language and realize that careful study of cat tail signs is vital to both your and your pet’s happiness in the home, you’ll be amazed at the myriad — and very clear — signals and emotions your feline companion shares with you.

Cat tail language: The basics

Cats with their tails up.
What is your cat’s tail trying to tell you? Photography ©Cynoclub | Thinkstock.

Thankfully, animal behaviorists like Dr. Ballantyne have done exhaustive research to help guide pet owners to understand the finer points of cat tail language.

“Tails can move quickly or slowly,” she says. “A flicking or lashing tail signals that the cat is agitated, while a slowly waving tail indicates the cat is focused on something (i.e., about to pounce on a toy). “The tail-up posture — tail straight up with a slight curve at the end — is a signal that the cat is approaching amicably,” Ballantyne continues. “This posture, witnessed among feline friends, is a common way cats greet their humans.

“Cats may curve their tail around people they are bonded to and may intertwine their tails with other cats they’re bonded to. This is called an affiliative behavior.”

“Cats tuck their tails under or next to their body when they are feeling frightened. They often are crouching with their heads tucked in at the same time. We also can see these behaviors when they’re feeling pain.”

But learning cat tail language is like learning any foreign language: It takes time. If you are new to cat tail signs, you can be confused by what various tail movements and positions indicate and inadvertently upset or confound your cat.

Petting your cat around the tail area

While learning cat tail language is a must for cat owners, actually petting the cat around the area of the tail (the base of the tail or the tail itself) is not appreciated by most cats, Ballantyne says. Rather, focus all petting and scratching around the chin and ears, she adds.

Further, if during a petting session your cat’s tail starts twitching or lashing, her ears are turning back or she’s leaning away from you, these all are signals that your companion is done with this interaction, Ballantyne explains. Cats share pretty clear messages about how they’re feeling at any given moment with one of their most expressive body parts. If you take the time and effort to learn cat tail language, you’ll be talking tail like an expert in no time, bringing you and your feline companion’s relationship to greater understanding and happiness.

How to respond to cat tail language

1. Tail position: Upright, held high

A cat with an upright tail.
A cat with an upright tail. Photography ©Seregraff | Thinkstock.
    • What it means in cat tail language: Confident, happy
    • How you should act/react: Offer playtime, cuddles and treats.

2. Tail position: Curled at the top like a question mark

A cat tail curled at the top.
A cat tail curled at the top. Photography ©Photodisc | Thinkstock.
    • What it means in cat tail language: Friendly
    • How you should act/react: Offer your hand for sniffing and petting.

3. Tail position: Straight down

A cat with his tail down.
A cat with his tail down. Photography ©Ekaterina Cherkashina | Thinkstock.
  • What it means in cat tail language: Agitated, feeling aggressive
  • How you should act/react: Don’t try to engage or pet her. Try to neutralize whatever is upsetting her.

4. Tail position: Curved beneath the body

A cat with a curved tail underneath.
A cat with a curved tail. Photography by ©sakinder | Thinkstock.
  • What it means in cat tail language: Nervous and/or submissive
  • How you should act/react: Act nonchalant. Wait for her to come to you.

5. Tail position: Puffed

A black cat with a puffed or bottle brush tail.
A cat with a puffed tail. Photography ©GlobalP | Thinkstock.
  • What it means in cat tail language: Scared, agitated, angry
  • How you should act/react: Leave her alone!

6. Tail position: Whipping back and forth

A gray cat with a whipping tail.
A cat with a whipping tail. Photography by Casey Elise Photography.
  • What it means in cat tail language: Fearful; angry, aggressive
  • How you should act/react: Best not try for quality snuggle time with an angry cat.

7. Tail position: Swaying slowly from side to side/twitching

A black cat with a swaying tail.
A cat with a swaying tail. Photography by Casey Elise Photography.
  • What it means in cat tail language: Focused
  • How you should act/react: Let your captivated cat follow her interests.

The table guide to cat tail language

If a cat’s tail is… … it means he or she is
Upright Content
Up at a 45-degree angle Unsure
Angled back, moving back and forth “Good” excited or “fearful” excited (the ears and eyes can help determine which)
Upright, moving back and forth slightly Happy
Upright, tip bent Friendly
Straight, almost level with the spine Uneasy; not necessarily afraid
Hanging down, with a dip near the base Aggressive
Quickly swishing back and forth Angry
Puffed Frightened
Down at a 90-degree angle Attack mode
Tucked between the legs Scared, possibly experiencing pain
Sitting upright, tail tip is moving Alert, interested

Tell us: Did we miss any cat tail signals? How does your cat talk to you in cat tail language?

Thumbnail: Photography ©Tomwang112 | Thinkstock.

This piece was originally published in 2018. 

About the author

Ellyce Rothrock spent half her life with Flea, a Maine Coon who lived to be 21 and is missed every single day. She’s currently seeking a feline friend to manage Fritz and Mina, her German Shepherd Dog rescues. She’s lucky enough to live her passion for pets as a 25-year member of the pet media industry.

Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home. 

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111 thoughts on “Cat Tail Language: What Your Cat’s Tail Is Telling You”

  1. Pingback: How To Find Out What Your Kitten Wants – NewzMonk

  2. Sheryl Stanley

    I’ve been wondering about hybrid cats, such as the Savannah cat, which is part serval (a wild African cat). Wild cats don’t carry their tails up; they carry them down and out. Do their hybrid offspring do the same, or do they generally carry their tails straight up like the offsprings’ domestic ancestors?

  3. Shayne Griffin

    Are you sure about the tail wip? I have a baby that curls up on my lap and wipes her tail like crazy while I’m petting her but makes no attempt to move or show in any other way she’s agitated

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  5. Hmm we have 7 cats. 5 huge mainecoons and 2 ragdoll. Every single one of them sleep with their tails wrapped close to then and they are hardly frightened. Also 3 of the boys flip their tails all the time. When I pet them and I know they are happy their tails are flipping and the tip is whipping back and forth. Happy as can be purring as well. Not real sure how accurate this info is since all cats are different and I’m pretty sure a cat curls up with its tail tucked in because well that’s just what they do. Probably feels better than leaving it sticking out to get stepped on or something.

    1. Chris I think your exactly correct on everything you wrote…every cat is different..
      I have a ragdoll & a chocolate siamese cats, they are so friendly they are “never mean” ever…VERY lovong & social…
      I also have a snowshoe siamese cat, she is VERY grumpy, scared & mean
      BCUZ someone declawed her front & back claws…she has no defense against my other 2 cats…I adopted her…she doesnt have to be in defense but she does not know this..
      So her defense is “biting” & she bites hard to puncture the skin…
      I have to separate the cats from her at all times…I hope eventually she will come out of this….I dearly love all my cats…

    2. but the behaviour is about when they are awake, not sleeping. My cat also sleeps with her tail close around her boody, but when he’s awake her tail is never like that.

      1. I believe the article is saying the tail wrapping issue is when they are “standing” etc and not when they’re lounging around. Hmmm. That’s my take. I know dogs curl their tails up under when fearful etc.

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  18. my neutered male cat always carries his tail straight up lays around the house on his back with his legs spread… very comfortable and very spoiled. I can’t find any reason why he presents his butt to me though? What does that mean?

    1. He is saying HEY look at my butt! It is a cat greeting and they expect you to look smell and enjoy it. Mine do it to me a lot, I just give their tail bases a scratch or light pinch and they turn and headbut me. (yes, it says not to but the two females just love scratches up and down the base of the tail) Usually a petting session starts after or this happens during one. They face their butt at my face and start backing up my stomach. I give em a pinch and push it away if they insist too much. Or if I see something there they get the DREADED wet wipe.

    2. He presents his behind as a way to offer you to smell it *yes truly!*, as his way of inviting you to prove he IS a member of your family as cats often smell the behind of others in their ‘family’… as disturbing as it might very well be, its also quite the honour

  19. Pingback: Cat Body Language 101: A Guide to What Your Pet is Thinking

  20. I actually have an interesting take on this article. While the author definitely has evaluated their own cats’ tail talk, all cats have their own distinguished verbiage to their tail talk. For example, my furbaby’s tail extravagantly poofs when he gets excited. Like when he gets special dinners or fish fillets. His tail tip also twitches lightly back and forth when he’s content. He always sits with his tail wrapped around him. Most of the time he’s just waiting for one of his subjects to carry him to receive either another round of scritches or a treat. But then again, he’s constantly purring, and absolutely melts when you pick him up.

    1. My one orange cat loves to “pet” us with his tail. He is a real sweetheart.

      He’ll lay next to me, and his tail will run up and down my arm in a very gentle way. When he sleeps with me in bed, he is next to me, and when laying in the right position, he will soothingly move his tail up my face and down my arm. He repeats this process, too.

      I love that he shows his affection with his tail. He, obviously, purrs a lot and sits next to me or on me. But I just love how he gently pets me with his tail.

  21. My cat’s tail will go over his back & touch the back of his neck with the tip(kinda like a handle) never seen this before. Is he saying “I’m uber-confident?”

    1. Joyce Andersen

      our kittens are like that when they are exploring the back yard. I came here to see what others made of it.

  22. I have a tabby that is about 14 years old, definitely getting in her twilight years but she had a checkup about 9 months ago and vet says she seems really good. However, in the last year she has taken to sleeping with her entire tail underneath me. She aligns it with my pillow so it is under my back right where it meets the pillow so all my weight isn’t on it directly as I am 5’10” . At first I thought it was a fluke but nope, she is doing this quite on purpose over and over. She will sleep like that and relax like that too. Not always but often. Whyy??

    1. I am on this site to be sure I find the right kitty cat for my life. My precious Boston Terrier Dog, has also started to make sure he is in touch of my body in sleep! I really believe, with their age ~ it’s them wanting to be as close as possible to us and they know they are dying, too! I feel total love from my baby girl! I bet your Tabby is sharing her love too! She obviously loves you! Blessings and Best Wishes Dana!

  23. My cat love to have the area at the base of her tail, on her back scratched! She will sit there with the front half of her body on the ground and her hind end in the air for you to scratch! Her whole tail will swish side to side and she will meow during her scratching session. If you stop scratching on one side she will lean more into the side you are still scratching. Silly!

    1. My cat play catches with me with her tail. She would keep keep on whipping aginst my mouth until I catch it.

    2. There is actually a term I have always used to denote the height of a cat lifting its rump up so as to meet the human hand held above. The term is “caltitude” and is self explanatory.

    3. Joyce Andersen

      we have had many cats that love the base of the tail being scratched…usually a female coming into heat seems to really like that… but we have males that do too.

    4. we have had many cats that enjoy being scratched at the base of the tail,, usually females coming into heat do…but many males do too.

  24. To John Hodgson
    My cat started licking a collection of rocks that I had when his kidneys began to fail. You might want to take your cat to the vet if porcelain is it’s choice.

  25. Pingback: Cat Adoption (Part 2) | Nancy's Cat Corner

  26. My furbaby will lift her left back leg, not in a I’m about to pee kind of way, but straight up off the floor and then immediately her tail will stand almost straight up and start to vibrate. She seems happy or excited maybe when she does this. Never seen a cat do this before her. Would love to have her be able to tell me.

    1. My cat has a “trembly tail” – what we call it. It is how she says, “I’m so happy to see you” or “I love you so much!” Her tail is straight up and the trembling is more at end. She’s a tiny girl, so pretty and so sweet. The vet told us about this communication.

      1. My cat’s tail ‘vibrates’ when she sees me taking the top of her cat milk and she is anticipating the pleasure of drinking.

  27. CleoCatra Kit-Kat

    Have a calico cat that loves to snuggle close and when I pat her hip or rest my hand on her hip, she tightly wraps her tail around my wrist, completely encircling my hand. It’s as if she is saying I want you to stay close.

  28. I read your article with great interest, but I did not see anything about a cat who constantly drags its tail on the floor. I am currently fostering a young female feral kitty who reminds me of a ’40s diva , gliding cross the floor with her boa following behind. I have seen her lift her tail up briefly when she is playing with my own kitty. Is this tail posture typical of feral cats?

      1. One of the things our kitty does that I think is just adorable, is when she comes into a room I am sitting, she comes over and stands next to my chair until I stroke her. Then she arches her back and quivers. Sometimes she wants two strokes, then she wanders off and does whatever. I just think it’s cute.

    1. taking care of a feral cat with a tail that stays way down low ~is the cat affectionate? do the kitties like each other? also be sure you get feline AIDS shot for that cat and your kitty too, now, if you didn’t get them before the feral came in. sorry, you probably did all this but i meet so many who i never knew there was a problem for their pet until it was too late.

  29. Helen Ann Auriello

    My cat was a stray so I don’t know if it makes any difference. My cat puts his tail in a question mark when he’s walking to get his food (he loves his food!!!) . He does this each time so I don’t understand how it means that I need to let him come to me. He wags his tail when he is playing. How can it mean he’s not happy again.

    1. Hi Helen,
      Different tail signals might vary from cat to cat. These articles might provide further insight:

  30. About the puffed tail, they can also puff up only the base of it if really content about something.
    I’ve had two male cats that used to do that whenever they where being brushed, and they really liked to be brushed cause they’d even rub their chins against the brush if you held it up to them.

    1. Enjoyed the information, thank you. My cat for the last day has been walking around with her tail down, and crys if I try and pet it, she just is not feeling happy. Any thoughts?

      1. Hi there Barry,

        We suggest taking your cat to the vet ASAP if she is crying when you try and pet her. We hope your cat feels better!

      2. Tails can get injured and broken, just like any other part of the body. If my cat were dragging it’s tail or keeping it down, I would have the cat checked at the vet immediately.

  31. I’d like to think I know cat tail talk but I never stop learning either. Great info! That being said how do you read a bobtail? Please get back to me. My Elana is a hybrid wild cat and domestic that was abandoned at birth. She’s great at 5 years old but intense mood swings from time to time. She even still takes her baba. I adore her and she’s not really mean to me just everyone also. Any goods answers?

    1. Hi Tina,

      Thanks for reaching out! We don’t have any specific info on reading the bob tail’s tail language but these other posts on cat body language, etc. might provide some insight into how your cat is feeling:

    2. My Kitty Sunshine was a bobtail and I spent 12 years with her. She became an angel on June 28,2018. While it’s more difficult to read bobtails verses long tails, she would use her adorable little nubby nub all the time. When her’s would puff out it meant she was very happy. When her’s would twitch back and forth she was playing or hunting her toys. The last few days of her life it looked sad just like she did. Hope this can help you a little bit.

  32. My cats tail is literally always up with a little curl! She also starts waving it slowly when she is sitting when I start doing some “baby” talk with her, she knows I am talking to her! :)

  33. My Rosie loves being brushed, chirruping throughout the session. Afterwards she lays on her side, not taking her eyes off me and slamming her tail on the floor. Is she cross that I stopped grooming her? I think she is attention seeking for more grooming!

  34. When my one cat did his tail like that, he would let out a chirpy meow type noise vocally that sounded like “dyeezz neowtzz! ” This was before he was neutered. His still makes the noise, but not with the same enthusiasm. That lil twinkle in his eye faded a lil. But he seems to be doing better now, as he has recently taught this behavior to a male kitten he adopted.

  35. Dr. Nancy J. Field

    My cat is holding his tail to the right. He always is not jumping onto the counter. He eats on the counter because of the dogs. He waits for me to pick him up and put him on the counter. He does jump down. Wondering if he might have sprained his back end somehow. He is an indoor cat.

    1. Michaela Conlon

      Hi there Nancy,

      Thanks for reaching out. We suggest bringing your cat to the vet if you believe he might have sprained his back. We hope your cat feels better!

  36. Yes, your website has been very helpful. A question is it normal for the cats to jump on tables and cupboards. Is there a good suggestion to keep them off? Is it normal for cats to look out the window and sit on the ledge? Thank you for your ideas.

    1. Yes its normal for cats to jump onto the table and cupboards. From the start I say a firm deeper voiced “off” which usually works. The cat will get to know it shouldn’t be on table and cupboards and respond to “off” quicker over time. A cat, being a cat will most likely always get on furniture you do not want it to. My laid-back and obstinate Burmese never took any notice of my commands. A spray bottle of water works too. One squirt of water and the cat will move and in time just the sight of the spray bottle will be enough! Do not use a spray bottle if you need to spritz your cat for grooming because cat needs to enjoy grooming not be deterred from it. Also, do not try to push a cat off any furniture because she will most likely hold on to anything she can and and things will be on the floor with her!

      Yes, cats love to look out the window especially to see birds and little creatures, practice their hunting noises and attitudes same as the window ledge. Windows are their view to the world just like ours, especially if a cat is indoors only.

      Hope I have helped your queries.

      Yvonne in Australia

  37. Please, let us drop the term owners when referring tomour animal friends. They are our companions. The slave mentality has been superceded by conscious onter-species relationships. They are my cats, i am their human friend.

  38. Clubber our part Bengal loves to cuddle on my lap and curl his tail around my arm that is stroking him. He is a surprisingly affectionate boy.

  39. When in a sleeping situation, my boy will move only the tip of his tail when I talk to him. It’s like he says “I hear you.” (Or maybe it’s “be quiet-it’s quiet time.”)

  40. After observing many cats over the years I have come to believe tails are more sensitive and versatile than readily apparent. All my cats have done arm and leg “wraps.” During quiet stroking, they would use their tail to very gently explore my hand and arm It seemed as if they might be checking my temperature, texture and position as well as simply showing affection. Two other brief observations: All my cats have liked music, often laying near the speakers I provided for them. All preferred “easy listening,” non-vocal music on my cable music-only channel . Finally, about drinking from faucets. I have found that when my cats eat and drink, they leave surprising amounts of saliva behind. They would seek fresh water mostly when I neglected to thoroughly wash and rinse their dinnerware. I thought perhaps they disliked the odor of stale saliva. They usually stopped using a faucet when a very large water bowl freshened twice daily was offered.

  41. Cat tail indications are inexact at best. They often vary with breed, current disposition, socialization and other subtle factors. I feed a feral cat who is socialized only to me. Her body language and tail indications differ markedly from my indoor-only kittie. This would all suggest that you spend lots of quality time with your cat and learn its signs and signals. You will find that they are many and marvelous

  42. You didn’t mention tail tapping….. While lying content, I’ve noticed just before falling asleep, a light tapping of the tail. I’ve also seen them do it when they’re just sitting… looking like they’re just thinking, not getting ready to attach or anything thing.

  43. ‘Mantha (OTRB June 2011) would sometimes pet *me* (usually my arm) with her tail.

    I find, once a cat gets to know me, s/he’s generally OK with me including the tail in the petting.

  44. There is one cat tail behavior I didn’t see. Mine has a tendency to “quiver” his tail when he wants to be pet. His tail just shakes. He seems to do this when he wants attention and when he gets pet.

    1. My kitty, Jackson, does that too. I think it might be a “leftover” from before he was neutered. The tail goes up and then it “shakes” or quivers – the same way it does when they are spraying to mark territory. Thankfully, he doesn’t actually spray anymore! I think it is a “this is mine” gesture.

      1. Yes! I have thought that too. I had an Aby who did this. I always called it “shaky tail”. I noticed it resembled the spraying motion. Maybe he thought he was marking me, although he didn’t spray.

      2. My Jasmine, spayed, tail-quivers, usually near furniture or a wall. Nothing issues and I tell her she’s firing blanks.

    2. I’ve been friendly with cats which also sometimes have a tail quiver. As far as I can tell, it’s one step beyond the tail being upright with a curl. It usually happens as part of a greeting by a cat expecting me to have some treats for it, and I interpret it as excited anticipation.

      The few cats I’ve seen with tail quivers have another peculiarity. When the tail quivers it takes a very subtle corkscrew shape.

    3. I’ve had cats that have done that as well, and from what I’ve read they do it when they are very excited about something.


  46. When one of my cats comes into the room I call out their name in a happy way and their tails fly straight up. You can almost see them smiling!

      1. I had a cat years ago, who would walk into the room, sit down, and say “prrmeow” . It was his hello. I now have a vanity tag on my car with the quote. Figure everyone deserves a nice catty hello.

  47. My cats tail is almost always folded, curled up over his entire back. Does this mean he’s happy? He acts happy.

    1. My kitty Sunshine is the only cat I’ve ever known who loops her tail back towards her neck until it’s about an inch above and parallel to her back. She seems to do this when she is happiest and most comfortable. So it is a positive sign from Sunshine! ????

  48. Wonderful website! I though in the beginning that it may offer the simple stuff but found more detailed information. I reside in Bermuda and help the homeless/feral felines; I will market your website for all cat and non-cat owners.. Thank you for what you do.

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