Tell-Tail Signs: What Your Cat’s Tail is Telling You

Can you tell how a cat is feeling by simply looking at her tail?

Cat parents would tell you they are way more complicated than that. The entire body is a complex series of combined messages. But animal researchers say there definitely is an emotional pattern to tail activity that can help to quickly identify a cat’s mood. Then you can add in the emotions of the ears, the face and the posture to give you a more precise picture of what is going on.

A cat’s tail is normally about 10 to 12 inches long, with roughly 20 vertebrae, making up 10% of the bones in a cat’s body, so it has a lot to say. The tail is full of nerves, and injuries are very painful. Worse, because it is directly attached to the spine and nervous system, permanent injuries can affect other places in the body, too. Cats are very protective of their tails, so if they brush up against you, or allow you to touch their tails, it is a sign of great trust.

A cat’s tail also helps him to balance when he walks on a narrow fence or leaps. In most breeds, the tail is in proper proportion to the rest of the cat, to facilitate this balance.

Only the Manx is naturally born without a tail, the result of a natural mutation. Manx litters can have varied-lengths of cartilaginous nubs or stubby vertebral tails. But a true tailless Manx is rare because it also carries fatal abnormalities.

A stubby tailed Japanese Bobtail or American Bobtail cat has a mutated recessive gene, so these breeds don’t have medical problems like the Manx.

Think of the tail as a ‘happy meter.’

High tail –  a confident cat who is happy and ready for fun. The higher the tail, the more it’s an exclamation mark of excitement. Exception: High and shaking rapidly as he is backed up to something – he’s marking territory. Other exception: High and bristled – he’s frightened and trying to look bigger and more ferocious. Approaching a cat who is terrified will only make matters worse. Try to remove the cause of fear instead.

Medium high or ‘U’ shaped tail – a relaxed, mellow cat. Emotional states in this range include the comfortable curl, a relaxed swish of  mild interest, the question mark of curiosity. Exception: sudden, sharp side-to-side slaps or agitation means the cat is now annoyed. It’s time to stop whatever you are doing and give him some space.

Very low tail – especially with agitated flicking, thrashing or thumping the ground means anger. It’s best not to approach a cat who is this upset. Try to discover and remove whatever is disturbing your cat, and then wait for him to calm down.

Down and curled under – very frightened and/or possibly injured. First, assure the cat that he is safe, and then try to identify whether it is due to fear or pain. (It could be both.) You may need to have your cat looked at by a vet if the issue doesn’t resolve within a few minutes.

Wrapping tail – One thing that makes cats so appealing is the elegance of the wrapping tail. It has three meanings:

  • Wrapped around his feet indicates shyness.
  • Laying down with the tail curled around the body indicates peacefulness.
  • Curling the tail around you translates to a very special, loving hug.

Heron’s Crossing provides end-of-life care for pets in the Metro Atlanta area. In-home appointments with compassionate vets are available. If you’d prefer a home-like setting away from your home, our Decatur office is also available by appointment.