Cat Tail Wagging: The Meaning of Your Cat’s Different Tail Wags

Cat tail wagging is far more complicated than dog tail wagging. There are different cat tail wags that mean very different things in cat language.

A gray and white cat with her tail up.
A gray and white cat with her tail up. Photography ©GlobalP | Thinkstock.

Humans usually associate the action of “tail wagging” with dogs. Canines are fairly straightforward with their tail communication. Cats, however, are way more subtle in their body language and cat tail wagging is very nuanced.

Related: 6 Ways to Talk to Your Cat

Marilyn Krieger, Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and author, says, “Although tails are expressive, eyes, ears and body positions combined with the tail language paint a more complete picture of how cats feel.” Cat tail wagging can mean many different things. Here’s how to decipher the messages sent by cat tail wagging!

A closeup of a cat tail.
A cat thrashing his tail means he wants to be left alone. Photography ©Alexmia | Thinkstock.

1. What “The Swish” Means

Marilyn Krieger advises, “The direction and speed [with] which cats move and swish their tails conveys their feelings. When felines thrash their tails quickly back and forth, it indicates that they are unhappy and want to be left alone. Tails that move slowly from left to right often indicate that cats are mildly annoyed. Sometimes, cats who are playing will swish their tails from side to side before pouncing.” This means we should pay attention to the way our cats swish their tails and not make assumptions.

2. What “The Twitch” Means in Cat Tail Language

We’ve all seen this type of cat tail wagging: A cat is sitting on a windowsill concentrating on nearby birds or rodents, when her tail begins twitching. It’s not the exactly the same movement as the previously mentioned “thrashing,” but it may look similar. Her ears, eyes and vocalizations will indicate if she’s upset or simply maintaining laser-sharp focus on a squirrel. As with the thumping, the twitch also carries the message, “leave me alone.”

3. What “The Quiver” Means

A “quiver” is a quick, tiny cat tail wagging action. When your cat is excited to see you, she may approach you with her tail in a vertical position, with just the tip of it making quick, little quivering motions, similar to a rattlesnake’s tail. Unlike the snake’s warning signal, a quivering kitty tail is a welcome sight and is typically accompanied by purring, face rubbing and sometimes even happy vocalizations. Return the greeting, even if you can’t quite do the tail-shaking thing.

4. What “The Sleepy Flick” Means

Unlike dogs, who are more than happy to come when called, cats like to mull over the situation and decide if we’re worth their time at that exact moment. When food is involved, there’s typically no question — all they have to hear is the pop-top of a can and they race into the kitchen like a baseball player sliding into home base.

Other times, if they’re sleeping when we call their names, they like to play games. Instead of blatantly acknowledging us, they choose to meet us with a single — sometimes ever-so-subtle —  flick of a sleepy tail. This is cat tail wagging that means, “Yeah, I hear you — I’m just choosing to ignore you.”

This type of cat tail wagging is actually a sign of contentment because your cat is telling you that she feels comfortable remaining asleep in your presence. The bottom line, however, is that cats are going to do everything on their terms, which is no surprise to anyone who shares their lives with a kitty.

A gray and white cat with his tail raised.
Paying attention to how your cat wags her tail will help you better understand your kitty. Photography ©Nynke van Holten | Thinkstock.

The Bottom Line on Cat Tail Wagging

A cat’s tail is really a barometer for her feelings. Cat tail wagging is a way to communicate those feelings with us, but we must consider the entire picture, including non-tail body language and overall demeanor, before accurately interpreting it. When we learn to read the messages our cats are sending us, we will respond accordingly and develop a trusting, respectful relationship with our beloved felines.

Top photograph: GlobalP | Thinkstock. 

This piece was originally published in 2017.

Read Next: What Do Different Cat Meow Sounds Mean?


47 thoughts on “Cat Tail Wagging: The Meaning of Your Cat’s Different Tail Wags”

  1. My cat thumps the end of his tail, a lot. Even when every other indicator suggests he is happy and content he keeps on thumping. Tail thumping in cats is rarely talked about in cat forums.

  2. My boy Clawed, is a wagger and he's very vocal to me but not others in the house, his tail never seems to stop even when resting we have four cats, only one is free range and he lost a leg when a car hit him, we have lost two others on the road so the 3 new kitties are inside only!

  3. Tail wagging in cats is most entertaining i believe that it is another form of ‘speech’. My ginger white adult male called Sam Scampi lets you know when he is using ‘speech’ . A gentle swish is i am in need of attention please. The tail thrash is i am not impressed with your actions. The tip twitching means i am happy to be around you but need some goody treats -NOW ! The quivering tail is look out i am about to pounce ( in hunting mode ) The wide sweep swish means – i am in charge here !- usually followed by a roll over and hey i want a tickle tummy . Some of the above can be accompanied by large bright eyes and coochy ‘talking’ meows . He also knows when naughty pinching tit bits – low sweeps.

  4. I have a long hair solid black cat named Daisy. She is a small cat but looks big because of all the hair. She is constantly flicking her tail. The only time it’s not moving is when she is in my lap or asleep. She is also an extremely vocal cat, especially towards my husband. She yells at him all the time when he tries to talk to me or when she wants him to notice her. She doesn’t really trust him very much and she will get just out of his reach if he tries to pet her most of the time. She is definitely a one person cat. Very big personality in such a tiny package.

    1. Were you able to help her trust him? My husband got a cat and hes doing everything for her but she always seems too come too me. And im alergic of fur babies. I love the attention but my husbands been getting sad about this and is thinking of not getting more pets. But i want too help him.

        1. I have a young all white male cat that always moves his tail. Its always waging in a downward position. Similar to a dog. While sleeping, while cuddling, while stalking, while eating….its always moving. Its my first time experiencing this as a cat owner and I am wondering if its a mental problem haha. Vet says he is fine but idk. Its like he is always agitated but he is very willing to play, to be petted, and he loves people and licking people. Just that tail is always in a downward dog like wagging motion. ALWAYS

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  9. Two of my cats do what we call the Rattlesnake Shake. They do it while we are petting them or when they are asking to be pet. Adorable.

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  13. My tuxedo kitty Stella jerks her tail back and forth all the time! At first I thought it meant that she was always mad about something, but soon I realized it was her normal habit, like a human’s “resting face”. Goes to show that cats are all different, just like people.

  14. My cat bongo prefers to be outside but when he sees me he comes running meowing away loudly I usually bend down to pet him and he loves being scratched hes never hurt me one time or show any aggressive actions but his tail swishes back and forth very hard like you see in other cars that’s gonna be aggressive or hyped up but bongo has never done that his tail slams back and forth wildly since he was a kitten

  15. My cat rarely wagged when he could come and go as he pleased , but now I have moved and he has to stay indoors or in an enclosure unless I am outside keeping a close watch and he is flicking his tail tip really fast Do you think he will eventually settle. Should I just keep him inside and in the enclosure????

    1. Hi Margaret,
      Thanks for reaching out! We suggest asking your vet for the most specific advice. You can also get some insight from these places:

      1. My cat talks. I used ask her if she wanted to eat “right now”? She picked it up and when she wants to she comes in and says “right now”?…asking again and again. She says it when she wants cookies too. No one believes it. I have it on tape. Where can I find more about talking cata?

        1. Derrick Thomas Lewis

          Same thing here. My Leo asks, “How’re You!”, when he enters our bedroom in the middle of the night. Perhaps he wonders if we’re still alive!

  16. We have 5 distinctive different color and fur coated cats; an older, female (spade) grey long, furred cat , we call “Grey Grey”, who birthed and mothered our “Boots”, her youngest litter, “Tuxedo” type of long furred cat; “Spots”, a short-white furry cat with 3 black spots on his back & a partial black face and black tail; a younger short-furry Calicao we named “Phoebe’, and a short-fur, light gray, soft, fur cat we call “Sheba”. They all have different tail-wagging behaviors we’ve noticed. Boots does the “swishing” tail type, except when he comes on our couch and sits between me and my husband and gets a few bits of his Temptations treats, he’ll wrap his tail around my head when I snuggle up to him as if he’s returning the snuggle. Spots had indicated a few times the stiff, up in the air motion type, of his tail at times when he’s been outside at long periods and comes in the house to cool off, he seems to do that. Spots also swishes his tail at us when we praise him and tell him we love him, as it looks and seems he is responding to that stimulus. The younger cats, Phoebe & Sheba, especially Sheba, express their tail wagging with us in the ways this article explains, and Sheba seems to like wrapping her tail around us both when she wants attention, we’ve noticed. Our oldest friend, Grey-Grey, mother of Boots, doesn’t do the tail swishing as much as the others, but she responds to us very well in other aspects like rubbing up against us around our legs expressing her gratitude to us with her face rubs, or bunting, too. All in all, we respond to their different “tail wagging” behaviors to their own individual types of communicating to us every day.

  17. My Bengal cat, Sandra, uses these tail wags. It’s kind of funny how you listed all of them. She likes to sit on our windowsill during the afternoon and watch the animals outside. (She’s a strictly indoor cat) It’s kind of funny how she even paws at the window trying to catch the animals. During the late evening, She goes back to sitting on the windowsill after her dinner. (She really does only eat 3 times a day at human appropriate times but water is provided 24hrs) This time, She watches the sky. She just ignores the nocturnal animals who sneak in our yard. She watches the sky but gets scared away when a plane flies by. She has a bed, but she sleeps on the windowsill. She uses her bed for daytime naps. Which I guess is OK.

    1. I have 2 cats and my bed is their bed, one on each side of me. Good thing I have a king cuz my husband gets the other half.

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  19. Andrea Gilbreath

    Our cats “hug” us with their tails when they are happy. It always warms my heart to get a tail hug.

  20. My cat gently flicks the very end of his tail when he’s getting cuddles. He’s practically asleep where I’ve stroked him so much and it’s definitely a sign of contentment

  21. When I take my cat outside in my arms which is a treat he wags his tail when I get him. I always thought that meant he was happy. I still think it does under this circumstances.

    1. All cats are different. Some of these may have some truth. But it all depends on your cat, the environment and the kind of attention they get.

  22. My cat was very ill actually not conscious at all anymore still he was wagging his tail. Was he in pain, trying to say something I don’t know. Tail was the last sign of live from him. :(

  23. My cat’s tail is seldom still … it always seems to be flicking even when I am petting him and he is purring very loudly and obviously very happy.

    He often “beats” me with his tail even when he is snoozing.

    The only time his tail seems to still is when he is fast deep asleep.

  24. Our cat Chert has a very active tail that many people find difficult to interpret as her style is somewhat individual. For instance, most people take the tip-of-the-tail wag for a sign of annoyance, but she does it when she’s happily being petted, purring loudly. She also crooks and gently wags half her tail when she wants attention. Just goes to show you really have to pay attention to a cat’s tail.

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