If you spend a lot of time around cats or even just watch one for ten minutes, you can’t help but notice that cats involve their tail in about just everything they do. Swishing it around, vibrating it, or puffing it up, cats’ tails are pretty complicated affairs.
How do cats make all these complex tail movements? Moreover, does the cat actually mean to make its tail do what it does, or are the tail movements reflexes that the cat can’t control?
In this article, we’ll cover the following:
In many ways, the tail is one of the most important parts of a cat’s body. You could almost say the reason why cats have tails is a lot like why we have tongues.
Even though cats don’t speak English, they do have their own language. “Cat speak” is a combination of the cat’s body language, ear movement, the sounds it makes, and, most significantly, the way the cat moves its tail.
By watching exactly how a cat is wagging their tails, you can tell what they are trying to tell you and if they are happy, nervous, mad, or in one of many other moods. There are a number of resources that can be very helpful in deciphering what your cat might be saying.
How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language is a great book that includes over 30 poses so you can see exactly what each tail position means. Another book, The Secret Language of Cats looks at what cats are saying with their tails in addition to exploring all of the cat’s body language.
Physiologically, a cat’s tail moves when a signal is sent from the cat’s brain, down through its central nervous system, to its muscles, thereby stimulating a muscular contraction. Scientists have been able to determine that a cat moves its tail primarily through the action of six distinct tail muscles.
It is believed that most of a cat’s tail movements are voluntary, meaning the cat controls when, how, and why it’s moving its tail. In contrast, involuntary movements are those which are automatic or reflexive, such as when your doctor hits you below your knee with the little rubber mallet causing your knee to kick.
That the cats tail movements are voluntary is significant. When a cat moves its tail, it is doing so on purpose, sending a deliberate message.
Once again, a combination of nerve signals and muscle action is responsible for a cat’s tail becoming puffed. However, in this case, the muscles involved are different than those used for tail movement.
Tail puffing, known scientifically as piloerection, involves tiny muscles located throughout the skin which are connected to the hair follicles. Unlike the cat’s tail movements, piloerection is generally believed to be autonomic, or involuntary.
People can also experience piloerection. When you get goosebumps from being afraid or cold, you are having an episode of piloerection.
Likewise, a cat that is scared, startled, or angry will puff up and wag its tail. Tail puffing is often accompanied by the hair along the cat’s back standing up as well.
The puffed-up cat seems bigger, hopefully making whatever is threatening the cat think twice about messing with it. Cats will also puff up their tail when playing in a mock show of force.
As the following video shows, a cat that very comfortable with its person will often “say” how big and bad it is even though the cat is really just playing. You can tell this cat is playing because its ears are mostly forward and there’s no hissing, growling, or other signs of aggression being displayed.
There are many instances when cats move their tails. A cat will vibrate their tail or swish it from side to side when they have targeted something they are thinking of attacking.
A fearful or aggressive cat will often twitch its entire tail rapidly back and forth in a whipping motion. If a cat is not playing, this is a serious warning to back off.
Many times, however, cats will use these same tail movements during play fighting. This is much like when people joke, “I’m going to kick your butt,” even though they are just having fun.
Cats can also use their tail to show affection. If your cat comes up and wraps its tail around your arm or leg, it’s much like a human hug, saying, “We belong together!”
Besides communication, cats also move their tails to help them with their balance.
What’s more cute than a kitten chasing its tail? Let’s check out the following video and see.
Well, that’s pretty cute. But, why do kittens seem so driven to chase their tails?
Basically, it comes down to what’s known as a predator/prey response. To a kitten, its own twitching tail looks and moves a lot like a prey animal such as a mouse, and the kitten feels compelled to go after it.
This is much the same reason kittens love to play with lure toys. As the kitten grows, it becomes acclimated to how its tail moves and looks, which is why many adult cats lose interest in chasing their tail.
We’ve learned that on the most basic level, cats control their tails through nerve impulses and muscle contractions. What is more fascinating, though, is that most of a cat’s tail movements are primarily the product of the cat’s voluntary and deliberate thoughts.
These purposeful messages are part of a rich language the cat uses to communicate with the world around them, which can be learned by us. In Catspeak: How to Communicate with Cats by Learning Their Secret Language, renowned animal behaviorist Bash Dibra shows you how, by knowing their language, you can communicate with your cat.
If you have any questions or would like to share a story about your cat and how they use their tail, please do so in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you!
Phil’s lifelong love of animals began as a young boy growing up with three pet dogs. As a teenager and young adult, Phil spent six years working as a veterinary technician, later earning a B.S. in Animal Science. After college, Phil continued working as a vet tech part-time while caring for a private collection of mountain lions used in wildlife educational programs. During this time, Phil volunteered at the Dallas Zoo and was eventually offered a position as a zookeeper in the zoo’s naturalistic Wilds of Africa area. Phil became the primary keeper for a black leopard named “Grady” and a caracal named “Tut” in the predator/prey exhibit.