How To Decode Your Cat’s Tail: A Masterclass
“Why the hell would a cat’s tail need ‘decoding?‘” you ask. It’s an appendage. It’s used for like, balance or something. Right?
“And when the hell did I sign up for a ‘masterclass?‘”
…*Avoids eye contact*
But seriously—a cat’s tail can tell us so much more than we might initially realize. I like to think of them as fluffy barometers of a cat’s current state of mind, which, considering how enigmatic our little fur goobers can be, is a goddamn blessing.
Lesson 1: Cat Tail Origins
Yes, cat tails are excellent for maintaining balance during their many tightrope walking, cabinet-leaping excursions. But tails also serve another essential purpose: for communication between themselves and other critters.
Along with cat sounds, body language and tail positions are kitty’s primary means of communicating her needs and moods. Learning to read a cat’s tail is an excellent way to ensure a harmonious cat household.
Lesson 2: Tail Position
A high tail is, generally, a better sign than a low tail. A cat approaching you with her tail held straight up is in a good mood. She’s happy to see you, and open to interaction. If we examine the evolutionary roots of such behavior, it’s not hard to see why.
In the wilderness, a cat’s survival would depend largely on its ability to remain undetected, whether on the offense (hunting) or defense (avoiding predators). A subconscious decision to hold one’s tail aloft (and thus highly visible) would likely be an indicator of inquisitiveness, openness, and friendship. Not unlike a human hand held up high in greeting, a raised cat tail is the sign of a relaxed, happy cat.
A raised cat tail, tip curved slightly forward, is an even better sign. Not only is she feeling relaxed and open, your cat is actively seeking interaction. Her tail tip gives it away—it’s curled towards you in “seeking” gesture. She is glad to see you. She wants to swap stories. She wants to hear about your shitty day.
Aren’t cats grand??
One particularly notable exception to this rule of “high tail = happy, low tail = afraid” is the iconic “Halloween Cat” tail. A kitty tail, shooting straight up as though electrocuted, is a reflexive response to being startled. Her tail will puff up with the fur along her spine, and her legs stiffen. This reflex makes a cat look bigger and more menacing, hopefully frightening off whatever vile gremlin dared take it by surprise.
In our house, aforementioned gremlin usually takes the form of another cat crouched behind the credenza, bum wiggling mischievously.
A cat tail held low, or parallel to the floor, doesn’t necessarily indicate the opposite of happiness. Generally, we can consider a horizontal cat tail to be a neutral posture. She is neither open to interaction nor extremely averse to it; she’s in her natural state, which for a cat means a state of passive caution. Attempts to pet or interact with her will likely be fended off or dodged.
A cat tail carried very low, almost touching the ground, however, is a negative sign. Remember the cat’s evolutionary instincts? A frightened, defensive cat wants to keep her tail tucked away and out of sight. She’s on the move only because she has to be, as she attempts to scurry away from some perceived danger.
An extreme manifestation of this state is a posture my husband likes to call “siege mode.” It’s a stance that my cats take when we’ve just moved to a new house. They skulk along the wall, bodies and tails held as low as possible to the ground, legs bent in a perpetual army crawl. Their very lives are under siege. They must stay in high alert and in a constant state of defensive caution if they’re to survive that strange humming noise coming from the fridge.
A tail tucked neatly around a cat’s body or out of sight indicates a closed-off kitty. She’s in one of those moods, detachedly observing her environment and reluctant to interact with it.
A kitty sitting with a neatly-curled tail most likely doesn’t want to be touched. Approach with kevlar gloves, or treats. Ideally both.
Last but not least is the “inverted U” tail. My cats don’t display this “horseshoe” tail too often, but when they do, they’re usually on the run. A horseshoe tail is a sure sign of defensive aggression—meaning kitty’s feeling extra feisty, whether from being chased against her will or from a particularly enthusiastic bout of the midnight crazies.
A inverted U or “horseshoe” tail in action.
Lesson 3: Tail Movements
Now that we’ve mastered the art of understanding cat tail positions, let’s throw in another variable: movement.
Tail movements are controlled by a cat’s autonomous nervous system, so they’re largely involuntary and thus the perfect visual gauge of kitty’s current mood.
(Check out a hilarious video of Pippin, our resident derpologist, attempting to tame his tail for a good grooming, here.)
A commonly-seen kitty tail movement is the gentle swish. Cats swish their tails while lounging in the sun, or flick them idly in sleep. A gently waving tail is the sign of a relaxed kitty.
When only the tip flicks back and forth, however, kitty is alert and focused on something. Likely, she’s gazing out the window at some intriguing sight. Or setting up for an inter-cat ambush.
Thrashing (or whipping) tail motions indicate irritation and/or excitement. When lying down, a thrashing tail is usually accompanied by a “thumping” sound as kitty’s tail hits the floor. She’s warning you (subconsciously) that your current petting session is getting a little out of hand. Perhaps your hand is straying too close to her sensitive underbelly, or you’ve accidentally handled her feet. It’s always a good idea to pay attention to your kitty’s tail when petting her (particularly when stroking her stomach), to avoid inadvertently activating the whiskered bear-trap of agony.
Sometimes, you’ll also see play-fighting cats circle each other, tails thrashing away. A certain level of aggression will usually be present during cat play sessions, so this isn’t something to be overly concerned about.
When a thrashing tail is accompanied by bristling fur along the spine and pulled-back ears, however, it may be time to intervene (but casually!).
Redirecting your cats’ attention with a wand toy and a soothing voice will suffice.
(When you shout or make a fuss about aggressive cat overtures, you’ll only add to the tension and perpetuate more negative energy.)
Tail thrashing, however, shouldn’t be confused with tail wiggling (or vibrating). A rapidly wiggling tail, held straight up, is the sign of a very happy cat. She’s anticipating something awesome, like treats. Or affection. Or she’s just bloomin’ pleased to see you after a long absence.
Sounds gross, I know. No, cats don’t caress their own tails. That would be super weird. But they will caress you with their tails. If a cat’s tail brushes up against you or comes to rest on your body, that’s no accident.
While a dog may accidentally bump you (or, let’s be honest, beat you mercilessly) with their tails, cats are very cognizant of any bodily contact, and touch you only when they really mean to. A cat tail graze is expressing, ever so subtly, affection and fondness.
There you have it. Glorious songs of ice and fire, penned in the strokes of a cat’s tail.
And that’s all for this lesson, folks! Be sure to tune in for our next class, where we’ll analyze our kitty’s toenail clippings to divine the precise moment of their next bowel movement.
(Really gripping stuff, you won’t want to miss it.)
Forge on! Understand your cat like never before:
And finally: Why do cats really purr?