Tails have many roles. In addition to helping cats balance and maintain their center of gravity, they aid in communication. Although cats effectively express themselves, people often misinterpret or don’t notice these communiqués.
Tails are barometers to a cat’s emotions and intentions. They express the desire to cuddle as well as the need to be left alone. Tails also warn others when felines are in foul moods, and they also broadcast happiness and affection.
Tails alone don’t tell the whole story. One position or movement may indicate different moods and intentions — and these may be 180 degrees a part. Vocalizations, ear positions, and body language in conjunction with the tail communicate the whole message.
Check out the following examples of tail language — they will increase your understanding of your cat’s emotions and intents:
Along with head butts, chortles, purrs, and physical proximity to companions, tails convey cats’ emotional attachments to other animals and people. Often they wrap tails around the legs, arms, and tails of buddies they feel bonded to. They will also show sweet connections by relaxing next to their friends while draping their tails on them. Next time you are quietly relaxing with your cat, notice where he places his tail. He may be gently twining it around your arm or resting it on your hand. He’s showing his affection for you — the cat version of holding your hand.
The happy-tail dance
Not to be confused with spraying, many kitties greet their owners when they come home by fluffing out the base of their tails while quickly quivering them. This isn’t reserved only as a happy greeting — kitties will also vibrate their tails during other pleasurable times. Tails are held in an upright position with a slight curve at the top. Often cats will also back up to a vertical surface while vibrating their tails. This is usually accompanied by looking up at their favored person while they endearingly blink. Although this behavior resembles spraying, no urine is deposited. Another distinction between the two behaviors is that cats usually paddle their front feet up and down when they spray.
Tails wrapped around paws
There are a couple of possible reasons for cats to sit with their tails wrapped around or covering their front paws. They may feel unsure and don’t want anyone to approach them. The same behavior can also indicate the cat is feeling calm and relaxed. Which message your cat is sending depends on how tense his body is and how he’s holding his ears. If he is tense and his ears are turned then he wants to be left alone. On the other hand, if he seems relaxed and his eyes are closed or half-closed he’s calm.
Tail upright and slightly curved
Some tail positions convey confidence. Kitties who feel secure hold their tails up with a slight curve at the top. Tails held up also broadcast a willingness to socialize. The tall, upright tail is like a flag, visible from a distance, showing other kitties in the vicinity a readiness to hobnob.
Cats who slowly move their tails back and forth are broadcasting any of a number of messages. When conflicted and feeling indecisive, they sometimes show it by slowly wagging their tails. This doesn’t always mean indecision, though — it can also indicate irritation and annoyance. Before petting a cat who’s slowly wagging his tail, check out his ears, whiskers, eyes, and body positions for clues about his emotional state.
Watch that tail! If your kitty is thumping his tail or whipping it fiercely back and forth, he’s highly upset. The faster and more exaggerated the movements, the greater the turmoil. For your own safety, don’t approach, pet, or try to calm him down. His natural inclination might be to focus his frustration on you.
Tails held between the legs and low
Timid and submissive kitties don’t want to be noticed. They slink quietly around the perimeter of rooms with their tails low, between their legs, and they hold their bodies close to the ground.
When your kitty is twitching the tip of his tail he is demonstrating that he is alert and interested in the goings on around him. His tail will also twitch uncontrollably with excitement when he is stalking prey.
Stiff and bristling
Don’t approach a cat when his tail looks like a stiff bottle brush. He is literally bristling with rage — demonstrated by the stiff upright tail position and the bristling fur (piloerection). The tail isn’t the only indicator — angry vocalizations, whisker, and ear positions along with other body language help drive the point across.
Big and puffed up
Cats are vulnerable — unfriendly animals can seriously injure them. These little ones might be cornered, confronted, or find that they can’t outrun their opponents. Felines attempt to bluff their ways to safety by making themselves look big and menacing by puffing their tails out so that the fur stands on end while holding them away from their bodies. They also increase the deception through threatening body posturing accompanied by intense vocalizing.
Cats are expressive. People can learn a lot about their kitties’ moods, needs, and intentions by paying attention to tails, ears, eyes, vocalizations, and body positioning.
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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.
Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.
She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.