Fluffy, long, and expressive: most cat owners know that our feline friends use their tails for a variety of different things. When they’re annoyed, they flick their tails to and fro and when they are happy they hold them up high. And if you dare to pet your cat on their tail, or, even worse, give it a little tug, you’re sure to annoy them!
But why do cats have tails?
There are many biological, social, and evolutionary explanations as to why our favorite four legged friends are endowed with tails. And because knowledge is power, knowing about why cats have tails and how they use them to communicate with one another and with humans is an important part of developing a positive and loving relationship with your favorite feline.
In this article, we’ll cover the following;
The vast majority of animals, both wild and domestic, have tails and have evolved over millennia to use their tails for a variety of purposes: communication, balance, and movement.
Evolution is rarely wasteful. If an animal has a body part, there is a good chance that they need it for survival. Humans are a rare exception to this rule (appendix, anyone?).
To find out why cats have tails, we need to go Africa and back roughly fifteen million years ago. Cats belong to the biological family “Felidae,” which is a lineage of carnivorous animals that includes domestic cats. While our house cats may seem a far cry from other members of the Felidae group, including lions, bobcats, and tigers, they all likely descended from the same felines millions of years ago.
In fact, the theory is that most felines descended from the same feline, the African Wildcat. Domestic cats as we know them today were domesticated thousands and thousands of years ago and were particularly appreciated by the Chinese and, more famously, the Egyptians.
Cats have developed over thousands and thousands of years to be perfect little predators and communicators. In fact, excluding the five senses, a cat’s tail might be the most important part of their body.
Why do felines, who are all endowed with quick reflexes, razor sharp teeth, and claws, have tails? Well, tails serve a variety of purposes for our feline friends.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, they are used as a method of communication.
Cats communicate with each other from a distance with their tails, either by raising them, lowering them, puffing them up to appear larger, or hiding them. They also communicate with their human parents using their tail, often using their ears as well.
Have you ever come home to find your cat waiting for you at the door, tail raised high and wagging lazily? Well, your cat is communicating the joy they feel at your return!
This kitty is relaxing on the floor, moving his tail softly. It’s a pretty safe bet that he’s in a good mood!
Or maybe you’ve stroked your cat the wrong way (and let’s face it, cats can be very picky with how they are caressed!) and they begin to wag their tail slowly, thumping it against the couch or the floor. Most cat owners recognize these ominous tail signals as a sign that their cat is unhappy and will stop whatever they’re doing. It’s one of the ways you can tell you’re doing something your cat hates.
Cats also use their tails to balance themselves, especially when they are trying to walk on or fit through very small spaces. In these situations, cats use their tail as a form of counterbalance, which makes them extremely agile. Have you ever seen your cat walk across very small surfaces, like the top of your shower door? You can thank your cat’s tail for that because without tails they would probably topple over!
Cats are elusive and mysterious creatures, so their tail movements may not be instantly recognizable or decipherable to humans. So, it should come as no surprise that cats wag their tails for a variety of reasons, and it sometimes takes a little detective work to figure out what they are trying to tell us.
A short, quick, wag of their tail can mean that they are excited or annoyed, whereas a slow, lazy wag can indicate happiness and relaxation or irritation.
This ginger kitty is wagging his tail while bird watching, which means he’s probably excited!
Seems overwhelming? Well, there are a few little clues you can watch out for to figure out why your cat is wagging their tail.
Paying attention to your cat’s tail movements is a great way to figure out how they are feeling. Cats use their tails primarily as a way to communicate with the outside world, whether they are happy, sad, angry, or afraid.
Cats are able to puff up their tails in times of distress. If your cat is frightened or very angry, they may puff their tail to appear larger and more aggressive. Your cat may also fluff up his fur (particularly the fur on his rear end and tail) when they’re nervous.
This cat is showing classic signs of being frightened. Look at that puffy tail!
Cats also use their tails to balance themselves (though this is likely not a conscious decision on the cat’s part, it’s simply a part of their anatomy that works in their favor!)
This cat is using his tail to walk across the top of a fence. See how he moves his tail back and forth to keep himself balanced?
Of course they can! A cat’s tail is an extension of their body, and thus has sensory receptors, which make it susceptible to feeling. In fact, a cats tail contains anywhere between 19-23 vertebrae, which is roughly 10% of the bones in their body. A cat’s tail also contains a complex system of nerves, muscles, and tendons that give the cat’s tail incredible mobility and flexibility.
Check out this video of a crow pulling on a cat’s tail- the cat doesn’t seem too bothered, but he definitely felt it!
The tail is one of the most important parts of your cat’s body. It is not only a vital part of their anatomy but a multifaceted communication tool. Between balancing, scaring away potential dangers, and communicating with their humans, your cats tail serves a variety of very important purposes!
Learning to recognize what they are trying to tell you with their tails, along with appreciating the complexity of their anatomy, will go a long way in making you a better cat owner and making your cat happy!
Does your cat communicate with you with their tail? Have you every misread kitty body language and learned your lesson? Does your cat wag their tail like a dog? We’re waiting to hear your tales about tails- chat with us in the comments!
After moving to New York City from Rome, Italy, I began working in the nonprofit world. Despite my day job, my passion has always been animals, especially dogs and cats, and writing. What better way to combine the two? I’ve been a pet owner for 15 years, and my menagerie includes dogs, cats, hamsters and the occasional hermit crab. My beloved cat, Mozart, who I found as a newborn kitten, sparked my love for felines and is now nearly 15 years old. I am an enthusiastic volunteer at the local ASPCA, where I enjoy spending time with the cats and cleaning up after the dogs. I’ve been writing about pet ownership and care for the past five years.