What Does It Mean When Cats Wag Their Tails?

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Many people associate a dog’s wagging tail with excitement or bliss, which is a common misconception, but what does it mean when a cat wags their tail? 

Like their canine counterparts, cats use their tails to express their emotions. Depending on its position, movement, and speed, there is a spectrum of feelings hidden within a cat’s tail waiting for you to decipher. From the slight quivering wag of their tail that conveys anticipation to the whip-like flicking wag that suggests that they need some space, learning the ins and outs of how your cat communicates with their tail can help you become a better, more intune pet parent. 

Follow along to find out everything you need to know about the multifunctional tails of your cat companions. In this article, we will take a look at the anatomy of the cat tail and its different uses, ending with a deep dive into the language of cat tails. Read from beginning to end to get a comprehensive understanding or skip to the section you are most interested in using the links below. 

What Do Cats Use Their Tails For?

A cat’s tail is an extension of their spine

Like most other vertebrates, or animals with spines, a cat's tail is invaluable to their survival and daily functioning. It is responsible for movement, balance, communication, temperature regulation, and even energy storage.1 

A cat’s tail is constructed by around 20 small bones called vertebrae, the same bones that make up the spine. The bones, which get progressively smaller towards the end of the tail, are held together by tendons and ligaments along with muscles.2 Because of this anatomy, cat tails are incredibly articulated and limber, allowing cats to move them in incredible ways. When a cat navigates a cramped or narrow space, they use their tails to act as counterbalance. When they pounce on a prey and land after jumping, their tail cushions their fall. 

Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails?

Of course, cats also take advantage of their flexible tails to showcase a range of emotions, wagging them in different directions and intervals. When you see your cat wagging their tail, they may be trying to communicate with you.3

Paying close attention to when and how your cat moves their tail can help you understand their needs and preferences, allowing you to forge a better relationship between human and cat. If you notice your cat wagging their tail unusually, seemingly in pain, you will also be able to get them the help they need before the situation worsens or any further complications arise. 

When Do Cats Wag Their Tails?

Situations in which cats wag their tails

From as soon as they jump on your bed to wake you up for breakfast to the moment they are finally tuckered out from playing and ready for bed, your cat’s tail is constantly in motion. It helps your cat with a variety of tasks that make them the lovely, dynamic little creatures we know. However, if you keep observing, you may notice that there are certain situations in which your cat’s tail movement is quite telegraphed, especially if they are trying to convey an emotion. Cats wag their tails in different ways when:

They Are Happy

When cats are happy or during their playtime, they often wag their tails slowly in a waving motion from side to side. They could just be in a good mood, or they could be focusing on something, whether it is a bird outside the window or a toy you are waving at them. This is often coupled with a clicking or chattering sound from their mouth, which is a part of their predatory instinct. With their tails that help them balance and move waving, they are likely ready to pounce and hone their natural hunting behavior.4 

They Are Excited

An excited cat will produce less of a wag and more of a rapid but subtle quiver.3 Their tails may appear to be vibrating, and this usually happens when your cat is eagerly waiting for their food or when they see that you, their beloved owner, has returned home. 

They Are Sleepy

When your cat is sleeping and wagging their tail, it often manifests in the form of a twitch or a slight spasm. If your cat is just resting their eyes and not fully asleep, this movement could be them telling you that they are aware of your presence. They know you are nearby but feel secure enough to keep snoozing, indicating their trust in you. If your cat is in deep slumber, however, a twitch in their tail could be involuntary as they could be dreaming.5

They Are Annoyed

Any annoyed cat will certainly let you know how they are feeling, and a low whip-like flicking motion of their tail or a tail thump are easy tells that they would rather you stay away.3 This can sometimes happen when you are petting them; while you think you are showing them affection, they may not enjoy it at the moment and appear anxious and restless. It is important to read their body language to know when they will be receptive to it. 

They Are In Pain

Sometimes, a cat will wag their tail if they are in pain, almost in an effort to distract themselves. If you notice your cat laying down and slowly wagging their tail, perhaps sweeping it across the floor, pay attention to see if they are exhibiting any other signs of discomfort. Lethargy, a low appetite, going into hiding, or excessive meowing coupled with this wagging behavior should be a cause for concern. Get your cat veterinary help and check for any underlying medical conditions. If your cat’s tail is limp and not moving at all, on the other hand, they could be experiencing a tail injury.

Other Ways Cats Communicate With Their Tails

Cats use their tails to communicate their moods

Aside from wagging, there are many other ways cats can communicate with their tails. The position of their tail, the shape it is curled in, and its size can all be ways your cat emotes. To better understand your feline friend, you should also be familiar with the situations listed below:

  • A puffed up tail: A tail that puffs up to double or triple its normal size is often accompanied with an exaggerated arch in your cat’s back. In this case, your cat feels frightened or endangered. Anything from another cat they’ve never seen before to the sound of unfamiliar footsteps can trigger this response. This is a defensive reaction, and your cat is making their fur stand up to appear physically larger in hopes of scaring off the approaching threat.6 It’s no wonder that this posture is so often used in Halloween decorations.
  • A tail wrapped around their body: If your cat holds their tail close to their body and wraps it around their legs, they could be feeling uneasy. This is another way your cat can tell you that they are in pain as well, so keep an eye out for other atypical behaviors.3
  • A tail that is low to the ground: This tail position is typically utilized when your cat is exploring a new environment. They may be anxious and uncertain. It could also indicate submission or that your cat is in pain.3 
  • A tail curled into a question mark: When your cat’s tail is in the shape of a question mark, with the end of their upright tail curled to one side, they are content and interested in interaction. 
  • A tail that stands straight up: A cat that is feeling confident and sociable will hold their tails straight up. This tail position acts as a friendly greeting and is how kittens say hello to their mothers. 
  • A tail that wraps around you: When a cat wraps their tail around you, they are displaying their love. They may see you as a friend. A tail wrapped around your arm or leg can be thought of as holding hands or your cat putting their arm around you. This action is typically accompanied by purring and your cat rubbing up against you. 

What Does It Mean When Cats Wag Their Tails?: FAQs

Are cat tails sensitive?

Cat tails are highly sensitive, and you may notice that your cat does not enjoy you touching their tail. A cat’s tail is connected to their central nervous system as a continuation of the spine, with many nerves that send signals directly to the brain.7 A tail injury can majorly impact your cat’s quality of life, potentially causing conditions such as incontinence or even paralysis. Look out for signs of tail injury including aggressive grooming at the site and a limp tail.

Can cat tails break?

The bones in a cat’s tail can fracture or break. Getting it slammed in a door, falling off the stairs, and getting into a fight with another animal are all ways your cat could injure their tail. Since a cat’s tail is an extension of their spine, the location of the tail injury decides how serious it is.7 An injury at the tip of the tail can typically heal with time without complications, but an injury at the base of the tail can be detrimental as it is more likely to involve nerve damage. If the bones in your cat’s tail are crushed, there may be no way for it to heal. In that case, amputation is the only option. 

Can cats live without tails?

Although a cat’s tail is a useful tool responsible for a variety of functions, from movement to communication, cats can indeed live without tails. Even if your cat’s tail was amputated due to injury, with time, your cat will learn to adapt. In fact, there are also cats born with no tails or very short tails that are just as capable and agile as ones with tails. Manx cats have no tails and bobtail cats typically have a tail a third of the length of a typical cat tail. 

Close up of a cat’s tail

Final Notes

Knowing how your cat utilizes their tail for communication can help you better understand their limits, needs, and wants. While cat tail language can be hard to decipher, it is extremely rewarding to be able to connect with your cat on a deeper level. If you are concerned about your cat’s tail wagging behavior and suspect that it is due to an underlying issue, ask a Dutch licensed vet for help. Getting an accurate diagnosis from the comfort of your own home and products and medication delivered straight to your door will help you support your cat’s health and well-being with ease. 

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References

  1. Xu, Xiao, et al. "Whole Genome Sequencing Identifies a Missense Mutation in HES7 Associated with Short Tails in Asian Domestic Cats." Scientific Reports, 25 Aug. 2016, https://www.nature.com/articles/srep31583.

  2. Wada, Naomi et al. "Anatomical structure and action of the tail muscles in the cat." Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jvms1991/56/6/56_6_1107/_article.

  3. Gerken, Alison. "How to Read Your Cat's Tail Language." PetMD, 30 Jul. 2020, https://www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/evr_ct_what-does-it-mean-when-a-cat-wags-tail.

  4. "The cat's meow - Understanding the feline language and cat behavior." The Humane Society of The United States, https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/cats-meow.

  5. Langley, Liz. "Here's What Your Cat's Tail is Trying to Tell You." National Geographic, 9 Jun. 2017, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/pages/article/animals-behavior-cats-tail-body-language.

  6. "Aggression in Cats." American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/aggression-cats.

  7. Schubert, Thomas. "Parts of the Nervous System in Cats." Merck Veterinary Manual, Oct. 2020, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders-of-cats/parts-of-the-nervous-system-in-cats.

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