I recently had a reader ask me if I thought something was wrong with her new cat since he frequently flicked his tail. She was afraid that it meant he had a medical issue that caused him to be unhappy.
As anyone who lives with cats knows, a cats tail wagging can convey a multitude of messages, feelings and emotions.
A cat’s tail is a marvelous appendage with a wide range of motion. Curling, wagging, shivering, moving from side to side and up and down in both large and small movements. These are all made possible by the tail’s structure – small vertebrae bones, each one surrounded by muscle.
In addition to the position of a cat’s tail, the state of their fur gives further indication of what the cat is feeling. When the tail fur is flat, it shows that the cat is more relaxed, but when the tail fur is standing on end, the cat is either frightened or angry. When a cat is frightened or angry and their tail looks like a pipe cleaner they are trying to look bigger to ward off danger.
Finally, where the cat is and what it is reacting to play a role in deciphering what that tail is saying.
Interpreting what the cat tail wag means
Here are the traditional meanings of the cat tail wag:
When your cat comes to you with its tail perfectly straight up, they are giving you a wholehearted greeting with no reservations – they are happy and friendly. This is a carry-over from the kitten stage when they would greet their momma cat with an invitation for her to inspect their rear end.
When your cat holds their tail high in the air as they move about their territory, they are expressing confidence and contentment. If the tail is gently waving it means the cat is very curious.
If the tail is erect, but the tip is bent slightly, it generally means the cat is in a friendly mood with slight reservations.
A tail straight up with the fur bristled out says I’m very, very afraid and unsure of what to expect next. A cat this fearful may become aggressive in self defense, especially if this tail condition is coupled with a defensive stance.
A twitch or a quiver
When your cat’s tail is erect and the tip of the tail twitches, this means the cat is having a particularly happy moment.
If the tail is held still, but the tip is twitching it indicates mild irritation. If the twitching increases a swipe from a paw may be imminent.
You may also see your cats erect tail quiver. Gentle quivering may be seen after a cat has been greeted by its human companion indicating excitement.
Curved or low down
When the tail curves gently down and then up again at the tip, the cat is relaxed and all is well in their world.
If it is slightly raised with a soft curve it indicates that has caught the cat’s interest.
A tail curved like a question mark often signals a playful mood and you might consider taking a break from your daily business to play with your cat!
A curved tail can also tell you that something is making your cat nervous, insecure and anxious. When this happens your cat’s tail will be curved beneath its body. This can also signal fear or submission. Or your cat may be showing defeat and that it is feeling a lowly social status.
A cat is showing extremely active fear when its tail is lowered and fluffed out.
Watch out when the tail is positioned straight down and low. This tells you that the cat is in a very serious mood and may show aggression. However, be aware that certain breeds, such as Persians, tend to carry their tails low for no particular reason.
The wrap around
A delightful sight is seeing your cat’s tail wrapped around another cat. A tail wrapped around another cat is like you putting your arm around another person and conveys friendship.
Your cat may also wrap its tail around your hand or finger in a gesture of love.
Lashing and swishing
A tail that sways slowly from side to side usually means your cat is focused on an object. You might see this tail action right before your cat pounces on a toy or a kibble of cat food that has tumbled outside the food bowl.
In the mildest form of tail swishing, a cat being petted will communicate that he no longer likes it with a slow swish of the tail—it’s a first warning. If the unwanted petting continues, your cat may bat at you with a front paw or get up and walk away.
If your cat gets very agitated he will whip his tail violently from side to side and this movement may be accompanied by a low growl. Consider it a warning to stay away. The faster the tail, the madder the cat and an attack may be imminent.
Tails lashing swiftly from side to side can also indicate the cat is excited and anticipating that something exciting is about to happen like a fly going by or maybe a bird.
You really need to get to know your cat in order to translate what their tail movements mean. As illustrated here, tail movements can mean different things based on subtle differences. You need to learn your cat’s dialect to fully understand what they are saying. However, the basic interpretations given here will give you a good place to start!