8 Cat Tail Signs — Decoded

Cat looking backward chasing or showing his tail or butt.
Photography © GlobalP | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

A cat 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 — “cat 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.

Two cats with their tails in the air.
Two cats with their tails in the air. Photography courtesy JaneA Kelley.

1. In the air

When Sinéad 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 a sign that needs little translation.

A girl sitting on a bench petting a cat.
Photography by mimagephotography / Shutterstock.

2. Question mark cat tail

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.

A woman on her computer, hugging a cat.
If your cat’s tail twitches, it’s time to take a break from pets, cuddles and other affection. Photography ©cyano66 | Thinkstock.

3. The tip twitch

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.

A gray and white cat with her tail up.
The single tail flip is a sassy sign. Photography ©GlobalP | Thinkstock.

4. The single flip

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 cat tail language equivalent of a teenager’s smart-ass comment and reply with, “Don’t you twitch your tail at me, young lady!”

A hairless cat with a curled tail.
A cat with a curled tail. Photography by Dan Kosmayer / Shutterstock.

5. The cat tail hug

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.

A scared or surprised cat with his back arched and eyes wide.
Cats who get scared or startled may get the exclamation point tail. Photography ©PeopleImages | DigitalVision / Getty.

6. Exclamation point cat tail

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.

7. Cat tail tag

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.

A cat going on a hunt.
A hunting cat stretches her tail just behind her. Photography by LeniKovaleva / Shutterstock.

8. Hunting tail

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.

Tell us: 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.

This piece was originally published in 2017.

Thumbnail: Photography ©GlobalP | Thinkstock.

Read Next: 6 Cat Meow Sounds and What They Mean


70 thoughts on “8 Cat Tail Signs — Decoded”

  1. Kathryn Coltrin

    I agree with every factor that you have pointed out. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts on this.

  2. I am currently sitting my Bengal grandKitty, 6yo with me wrapped firmly where I belong. I don’t think I’m the brains of the outfit.
    One of the regular games, from as a kitten, is chasing, humans, or nothing, and being chased in return, more often by that nothing.
    The Exclamation point cat tail features during these games, it seems that the feeling of fight/flight is somewhat enjoyable in small doses. The tail posture seems as purely intentional as the mischievousness play. I tend to stand aside during these as the pace can be high, a sudden meeting in the hall resulting in a 180, panicked retreat with an immediate call, “come and get me”. With toys thrown into the mix these can be highly stimulating sessions.
    Knowing what a cat is saying is so important and watching the tail can make the day easier and more enjoyable, I’m especially watchful for the end of brush/pat twitch and use it to slow my rubs to ease into a comfortable sleep, holding the hand still and gently on the back, rump, whatever seems to also ease the twitch. I get rewarded with licks, blinks and often a rollover onto the back if I promise just to rest my hand on whichever part of her underside she wants hugged or warmed.
    Thanks for the ‘tips’

  3. My cat “bounces” her tail on her back when she seems to be excited or looking forward to something. Am I interpreting this correctly? Perhaps it is a stalking thing? Help me understand this. She does it quite often before she knows I will be giving her treats.

  4. Four-year-old Emmy, short for Emerald (white with green eyes both different shades), has a tail that rarely stops. From up like a fuzzy flag when she’s playing, getting meals, or is urging me to follow her to the window and see the ‘burdts.’ Flicking it annoyed when Azure (large for his breed Siamese) cuts in while we’re playing with the Rainbow Ribbon Stick. Shivering with anticipation as she prepares to “hunt” the sparrows hoping around on the other side of the window. Of course, the sharp snap that announces she’s had enough attention. Fortunately, for my hands, she’s learned to gently push them away, claws retracted, instead of grabbing them and chomping. I’ve seen her slowly switching it during sleep, perhaps dreaming of all of the above.

    I don’t typically add to these conversations. Came here to find out why Emmy’s tail is almost always “on.” I learned a lot so I decided to give back. Peace, y’all.

  5. Nancy Evelyn Swallow

    This may not be on subject here, but my purebred Persian cat does not respond to catnip? Is that a breed thing?

    1. Apparently 1 in 3 don’t have the catnip receptor gene. But there are other plant/wood materials…I think like a honeysuckle wood that is an alternative that apparently works

  6. My 5 mo old kitty has a very long sleek tail. She loves to play hide and seek with me every night. When i find her, she’s doing this twitch with her tail that I’ve never seen a cat do before. She literally rolls and twitches it back and forth while she’s looking at me with huge dilated eyes! Her tail makes a rumbling/ thumping sound on my couch. That is when she is feeling super playful. She is an Oriental Shorthair-Abyssinian Tuxedo with emerald eyes. I call her Mēp.

  7. Hi! My 17 yr old part Birman has a real tail twitch at the moment & I wondered if it’s because she has a flea that’s bothering her there, cos she sometimes sits & licks as far back in that area as she can! Also, when cats back up tithings & get a ripple twitch all way down but don’t spray, it’s a sign of affection & I own you or whatever it is they’re aiming at! I’ve seen male cats do this & spray to claim the area or object, my females do it but w/out the spray (Thank God!)
    My beautiful girl of 17 is called Millie & I love her so much! She’s amazing for her age!!
    Millie’s Mum????

    1. Penny Melinda Miller

      Thank you for sharing that! My lola will follow me into the…powder room…every morning and quiver her tail and bonk her little keppe around my shins. No spray (phew!) And I was so curious as to what in the world she thinks she’s doing. Thanks for explaining it????

  8. My cat bristled it’s tail before he ate. First topime I seen him do that. Does that mean I’m angry if you take this food from me, because I never did anything to intimidate him.and I always leave him alone to eat.

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  12. Here is an additional cat tail behavior…. my kitty always would “wag” her tail slowly back and forth once I put the food bowl down with her favorite wet cat food and would continue to do this the entire time she ate. It was very consistent. I thought to myself “who says that only dogs wag their tails”? I am working on editing a video that I did of her doing this and will post once I can.

    1. My tuxedo Norwegian Forest Cat flicks his tail in a slow wag when petted on his head. He is extremely lazy. so that’s about as affectionate as he deems to be!
      He is a big 16 pounder and nearly a yard long from whiskers to tail tip so he is King of the Apartment!

    1. Unfortunately the question mark tail is also one that cats may – not every cat does- show when they are dying . I have seen it happen in several cases, especially when lung edema ( fluid in the lungs, due to different reasons) was present. I am sorry for pointing this out here- but since cats speak with their tails too, it could be a useful info for cat parents.
      If only they could always be young and healthy and we could enjoy their cat language forever!

  13. Can you please tell me what kind of a cat is Bella. The Black cat with the white around her mouth and the yellow eyes and a little white on the front. I just adopted a five year old cat that looks exactly like Bella. Her name is Becca. She’s got short black hair, adorable, friendly, but trying to keep her front jumping on the table, counters and stoves. I would love to know what kind of a cat she is.

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  18. Well it was very good advice for mama to learn that when my tail is twitching she needs to back off on the snuggling up. Neither she nor public and keep their hands off me because I’m so cute but I get my tail twitching and they get the picture. Thank you for such a good blog.

  19. You forgot to mention the bent-over or kinked tail. It means that the cat is very excited and playful. The tail curves up over their back and then bends back towards their butt and is usually fluffed up. It shows up a lot in kittens. When my cats’ tails look like this, it is always right before they chase each other around the house!

    1. Thanks for mentioning this Katie! My female calico cat does this a lot and I have googled it without success until I read your post. She is a very confident and friendly cat so perhaps that means she’s always up for fun!

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    1. When my cat sits at our backyard window and watches birds, wildlife “visits”. The tail twitches as she becomes stimulated…..almost like she’s in hunt mode…..yet, I think she recognizes it’s more “entertainment” since she is inside the house. LOL

    2. For my kitty, that typically occurred when she could see some potential “prey”. I think it was a sign that she was wishing she could be out there chasing the birds, squirrels, etc.

  24. I think I disagree with the question mark tail. My kitty, Jasmine, always has a deep question mark curve when she is very happy, talking to me, getting petted, rubbing my leg or asking for treats.

  25. Baxter cat does the Guide Kitty mode, where he wants me to follow him to food, treats, etc., and slides past my calf with his tail wrapped vertically up around my leg “move your feet, food-kitty, time to go!”

  26. But, but, but…what if your cat was born with a stub tail? My cat has a stub tail (1/2 inch long). It twitches when she has had enough or is playful. You have to read her body language and look at her eyes to see what her mood really is. Her eyes go from green to gold depending on her mood.

  27. Ana Chapman-Wydrinski

    I love it when my cat not only wraps my arms with her tail but literally “pets” me with it. This is done intermittently with head bumps and sweet kisses on my elbow. I just melt!

    1. I love it when my kitties do that as well,
      They’ll sit in my headrest and take their tail and drape it by my neck and stroke my face.

  28. Anyone any idea what my cats are saying, please? Introducing a new cat who arrived 3 weeks ago. Sometimes they are about 50 cm apart near 3 year old girl Darcey’s zone & she’s crouched (she tends to be gentle, submissive, quiet when he visits curious about her since day 2) she swishes her curled not straight tail side to side 3 times medium speed on the floor. Shadow 4.5 year old boy sits with his back to her, face turned towards her & drums the floor with his tail not too hard 3 times. They repeat this over & over. Sometimes he beats quite slow, then softer just the tip like when he likes petting as if he’s attracting her attention then demonstrating gentleness. Friends rescued Darcey & gave her to me. I’d been saying it wouldn’t be fair on Shadow because he’s blind. But It’s going really well because they are both sweet natured, they had their own zones & he decided when to meet. They’ve never swatted each other. He hissed the 1st 3 days often a precaution when she wasn’t even there. They now each choose to be in the same room but different zones & sleep. They play either side of me. Today they started chasing each other but not hiding when they reached their own zones. He’s curious, they touch noses then she jumps away so I took her with me but she lay by the door to get back in^..^

    1. Hi Mandy,
      Thanks for reaching out! These articles might help provide some insight:

      1. Merci’ is a 6 year old Siamese. When I ask her a question about food, water or sleep she shakes her head if the answer is “yes”. She is very consistent . The whole head and ears shake. If the answer is “no” she just stares at me. Being shy and not very expressive or wanting to be held I am glad she has her own way of letting me know what is going on. Cheri Reisman

        1. Wow! Now that’s a new cat behavior for me. Our current cat was “feral” when I began to see her and feed her. She is very happy to have become our pet. She has some odd behaviors, a higher than usual fear/fright level. But, very loving, a talker, wants to sit on your lap, calls you when she doesn’t know where you are. We think at one time she was someones pet, maybe something happened to her owner and she was abandoned, lived outdoors, had kittens and wanted to be someone’s family member. Didn’t like living outside – yet, exceptionally cautious. Once we knew she wanted to come in……she has absolutely no interest in being outside. She’s smart. But she scares easily. She’s also a cat that wakes me around 5A, licks my eyelids, she wants me to get up, feed her and play games. I’m beginning to wonder who is who’s pet……LOL!

    2. I wonder if they know she’s blind and are using their tails to make sounds for the blind kitty to know where they are and what their mood is since it can’t see the visual cues.
      Animals are so intuitive and seem to know how to communicate or help other animals with disabilities.

    3. I wonder if they know she’s blind and are using their tails to make sounds for the blind kitty to know where they are and what their mood is since it can’t see the visual cues.

  29. I have a brother and sister that both rattle the tips of their tails. I call it “rattlesnake tails” They both do it when greeting me. It’s their kinda hello. I think of it as waving their hands! I have never had any other cats do this before. It’s so precious!

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  31. me and my partner Hannah have a maine coon rescue kitten called Lola with a very fluffy tail who has a funny tail signal of her own when she’s on the bed with us she gets up and waves it one way then the other and then her tail tip twitches me and Hannah have worked out its her signal to us for can you lift the bed covers for me our bed is really soft and stays warm so she loves hiding under the covers

  32. My cat sometimes does what I call his Halloween cat thing. He gets this big round eyed look, fluffs up all over, big tail and all, and bounces sideways toward me. It lasts about 5 seconds. I think it is a form of play stalking, like when he crouches in pounce mode, then “attacks” me, but not for real.

    1. That’s what kittens do when first starting to play with each other. It’s so cute and hilarious to watch. Yes…play stalking. Also, I have seen my adult cats do that with a dead mouse they have brought inside. Like they want it to get up and run so they can chase and pounce on it again. Your cat is a big youngster! Try pulling a string or small rope away from him so he has to pounce on it.

    2. My kitty (a year and a half old) does this as well with fluffed tail and a mohawk all the way down her back. If I imitate her sideways hopping with my hands slightly raised she responds with a mad chase me!. She also has a curious tail move that I haven’t seen here. With her tail straight up the whole tail vibrates. This happens if she is waiting for me to do something or she is watching something (like Mr. Squirrel outside the window who come to visit each day). I’m thinking it is some kind of excitement or anticipation.

  33. Tail Tapping….. seen when they’re lying next to me ready to go to sleep….they do a slow tapping with their tail. Their eyes closed and resting. Just find it really cool !

  34. Mine has a big fluffy tail (maine coon), and he saunters around with it swishing slowly back and forth, like he’s doing the Queen’s wave. It’s usually accompanied by trills and chirps and eventually turns into a belly flop for petting. It’s hilarious.

  35. One of my cats had a tail that flipped over his back a bit like a squirrel’s. It kind of make him look like a kitty teapot. When my cats get scared I ask them why they’re “puffy.” They all get “jiggly tail” which is that crazy vibrating, straight-up-in-the-air excited/happy tail. Before closing a door to an unused room or leaving the house I always do a “tail check” to make sure I know where everyone is!

  36. My big boy has a furry fox like tail.He tends to hold it high in. His question mark curls back. Hes a long hsir ginger. He walks by and literally tries to put the tail in my hand and hunches his back till I give his tail a gental tug. He does this till I finally stop. Why to cats liked their tais tugged? I feel very honored that he trusts me in this way. He knows Ill never hurt him.
    Thanks for any reply
    Momma Harriett

    1. Not all cats like their tails tugged, but the ones that do are just being affectionate. When you touch their tails, they may be saying, “Yeah, I love you too,”–kind of a hug.

  37. Tim and Sherry Baggerly

    Our Willie has a modified cattail in the air; he vibrates it–seemingly nervously– as if to confirm: “you’re gonna fill my food bowl with some yummy treats, right?!?”

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