BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

What Does It Mean When Cats Wag Their Tail: When Movements Speak Louder Than Words

orange cat wagging its tail
Martha Harvey
Written by Martha Harvey

If you are a keen observer of your cat, you may have noticed that most of his body movements mean something. For example, a cat will roll over and display his tummy to show that he is relaxed or bare his claws and teeth if he feels threatened. You may also attest that your cat’s tail takes different positions and movements at various times. This movement is referred to as a wag. So, what does it mean when cats wag their tail?

Not knowing how to interpret your cat’s body language can land the two of you into a lot of conflicts. Your cat can use the same body part to display varied meanings; think of wide open eyes to show trust or squinted eyes with constricted pupils to show aggression. The tail is no different; each wag sends a specific message which is also backed up by a combination of other forms of body language.

In this article, apart from explaining in detail what each wag means, we will also indulge you a little in a few other things that you need to know about your cat’s tail. Be prepared because, by the time you are done reading this, you should be working on ways to respond to the wag language.

Why Does Your Cat Wag His Tail?

spotted cat wagging tail

There is so much that goes on inside your cat’s tail. Apart from containing about 10% of all bones in your cat’s body, it has muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Its muscles are voluntary, which means that your cat can move his tail in any direction and way that he chooses to. It also means that your cat’s tail is an excellent indicator of his mood.

In fact, your cat’s body language will tell you more about him than his vocalizations. Here is a list of what a cat’s tail wag can communicate:

#1: Greetings

The belief that humans are the most important entities in the world can sometimes be misleading. Typically you will expect your cat to respond to your social advances the same way a human being does. When greeting your fur baby, it’s easy to miss the reply if you expect a raised paw or a meow.

Cats respond to their names being called out with very specific tail movements. They wag their tail into an upward and erect position. The tail may also be slightly bent at the tip. There is usually a noticeable quiver along its whole length. This is accompanied by a relaxed body posture and alert ears.

When you see this kind of tail movement, know that your feline is happy to see you; he acknowledges your presence. This is similar to the unreserved greeting a mother cat receives from her kittens. It’s also the same wagging that your cat will present when approaching a sibling or fellow cat that he is friendly towards.

#2: Curiosity

curious kitten

If you ever paid attention to your cat when he is in the backyard, you may have seen his tail wag suddenly—settling to a slow left and right movement with a slight twitch at the tip.

This is usually when he becomes aware of something that piques his curiosity. This is commonly followed by an outstretched paw to poke on the source of his fascination.

In your presence, he will steal glances toward you. This is like a plea to reassure him before he makes a move. However, in your absence, he will settle into a crouched position and totally concentrate on whatever has got his attention.

#3: A Hunting Tactic

One aspect of feline behavior that has been studied widely is their hunting tactics. When stalking, say a rodent, they move slowly in a crouched position. This allows them to approach unnoticed and pounce on the unsuspecting prey.

However, in situations where the prey notices the danger around them, running and hiding can put the cat in a difficult position. Mother Nature has a way of tipping the scales into the cats’ favor: the wagging of the tail.

The best way of finding a still and camouflaged target is by initiating movement. A swishing cat’s tail will captivate or dazzle the prey. This is usually followed by a movement that, however slight, will not be missed by the feline.

This tactic has been observed in all cats including domestic and wild ones. Kitties learn the skill from their mother during play. At a few weeks of age, they are enticed into attacking their mother through slight twitches of her tail.

#4: Being Territorial or Aggressive

aggressive cat wagging its tail

Unlike dogs who wag their tails as a welcoming gesture, cats will do it to show aggression. This is an angry tail movement characterized by thrashing and mumbled growls.

The wag is observed when a cat becomes tired of play or petting. What many cat owners forget is that these furry pets tire easily. Playtime that runs over 20-30 minutes can be stressful and can make them rush out.

Since they are not as anthropomorphic as you are, the best they can do is to wag their tails forcefully. This is a sign to slow down the petting or let them go. Missing this can leave you with scratches or bites.

When spooked by you or strange and loud bangs, he may also adopt this aggressive behavior. The advisable thing is to talk to him softly and keep your distance until he calms down.

In the presence of new cats, this kind of a wag is a show of might and right to a territory. The tail movement signals an impending fight. It’s usually followed by a puffed and arched back stance.

The tail will also be fully bristled—resembling a bushy rag. This is a survival instinct that makes a cat appear larger than they are. The posture is meant to intimidate rivals. At the same time, the pupils will be slightly dilated, ears arched backward, and the body will be tense.

See Also: How to Tell If Cats are Playing or Fighting

#5: A Sign of Fear or Defeat

Although cats are not pack animals, they do respect strength and social status between siblings or mates. You can tell where your cat ranks in the pecking order by observing his tail-wag when he is with his mates.

A fearful kitty will keep his tail low and wagging near his hind legs. This is a non-threatening signal to the other cats. In instances where a cat feels threatened and helpless, he will tuck his tail between his hind legs.

The idea here is to remain as small as possible. This helps fearful cats to avoid becoming targets in territorial fights. His fur will also not be fluffed or standing up like it does when anticipating a confrontation.

#6: Happiness and Contentment

content cat

A cat also wags his tail when he is asleep. Well, maybe not so much when sleeping but taking a nap. This is a slow back and forth sweeping movement of the tail. This swishing is indicative of a happy and content cat.

The wagging is usually observed after you have fed your furry friend, played with him, and tired him out. With his eyes closed, he responds to his name being called by wagging his tail. This behavior shows that your feline friend trusts you enough to let himself go in your presence.

Kittens are also known to wag their tails gently when sleeping near their mothers. This kind of litter behavior leads to the interlocking or wrapping of tails. As a result of this, many cats grow up to wrap their tails around their owner’s legs, hands, and neck while sleeping. This is a show of great love and trust on their part.

#7: Invitation to Play or Urine Marking

When you are busy with your daily routine, and you notice a ‘question mark’ curved tail movement from your cat, then it’s time to take a break. This kind of vertical hold of the tail signifies that he is bored and needs some exercise. If ignored, he may become cranky and disruptive.

The same tail movement could mean that a cat is spraying urine. This will usually be evident when your feline is backing up on the bedpost, a tree, or even the walls. The upward hold of a tail when urine marking is accompanied by a back and forth tremble.

If your house is all smelly from your cat’s urine, you now have a fighting chance. The moment he makes that forward or sideways curve with his tail, it’s time to direct him to his litter box or take him outside.

See Also: How to Stop a Cat From Spraying

#8: Invitation to Mate

cats mating

Cats are very selective and secretive when it comes to mating. This is unlike dogs who can mate indiscriminately at any given place. You are more likely to hear your molly making ‘I’m in heat’ noises, but never find her in the act. So, how do the males even know when or which female to approach?

The short answer would be pheromones and also tail movements to a lesser extent. The right signal is a tail wagged towards one side and held in position to expose the rear end. This movement acts as a sexual invitation and signals to the mate that the female cat is in heat.

What Else Do You Need to Know About Your Cat’s Tail?

black cat's tail

The tail is also packed with numerous nerve endings which make it very sensitive to any stimuli. Another important characteristic is the tail’s connection to the spinal cord, which is part of the central nervous system. This is a sure connection between the brain and the rest of the body. It confirms that your cat makes smart tail movements!

Other than the fascinating fact above, here are some other things you need to know about your cat’s tail:

#1: It is a Balancing Tool

When your cat is walking along a narrow surface like a shelf, the back of a chair, or a window sill, he uses his tail to balance. If by any chance he falls, the tail can help him regain his equilibrium mid-air and ensure that he lands on his feet. When your cat is chasing or pouncing on prey, the tail helps to keep him upright and graceful.

See Also: How Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet

#2: Injuries to the Tail Can Lead to Permanent Damage

Nerves extend from the end of the spinal cord at the base of your cat’s tail to the hind legs, bladder, large intestine, and anus. When the tail is injured, it can lead to temporary or permanent damage to the nerve endings. Inability to walk or control bladder and bowel movements are some of the bodily functions that can be affected.

#3: Cats Can Cope Without Tails

Cats can be born without tails due to genetics or lose their tails due to injury or attack. Manx cats can be born tailless, stump-tailed, or full tailed. Though they may have to work a little harder to cope, they eventually manage to get by albeit with a few challenges here and there.

Wrap Up

gray cat and its tail

Cats mostly communicate with their body language. They can express themselves differently using each of their body parts.

A cat’s tail wag is not just a random movement. The tail is connected to the brain by the spinal cord and is also structured with nerves, bones, tendons, and muscles. This helps your cat to make movements that communicate greetings, curiosity, hunting excitement, aggressiveness, defeat, fear, and invitation to play or mate.

The wags do not work in isolation. Each comes with a combination of other forms of body language and/or sounds. With keen observation of all these, you can do a better interpretation of your cat’s tail wag.

There is more to a cat’s tail than movements; it also helps your cat to balance. However, it is possible for your cat to be born tailless like in the case of a Manx or to lose the tail due to injury. This does not mean that your cat will not be able to survive; cats can learn to cope with this limitation and be just fine in the long run.

Did you learn something that you didn’t already know before? Do you know of any other meanings of tail wags? We would love to hear from you. Leave us your comments below. Now that you know how to better understand what your cat is trying to tell you, it’s time to learn how to talk to your cat.

About the author
Martha Harvey
Martha Harvey

Martha Harvey is a skilled veterinarian and a member of American Veterinary Medical Association from Greeley, Colorado. She has 20 years experience of working in Animal Hospital. Martha loves all of her patients, but her favorite one is the Russian Blue cat Stitch, who lives with her.

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