A cat’s tail is an extension of their spine. It holds approximately 10% of the bones in their body. The number of bones (caudal vertebrate) in the tail averages between 20 and 23; the number of bones correlates to the breed of the cat and the length of the tail. The vertebrate contribute to bowel control. Injury can cause damage to the bladder, large intestine or anus.
The PURPOSES of our cats' tails are as follows:
- To keep kitty balanced when he walks along a fence. The tail is used as a counterweight; if he looks left, the tail will move in the opposite direction. Additionally, ‘Catipedia’ points out that the tail not only helps him balance on a limb, it also helps him flip in the air to land on his feet should he fall off that limb. Further, the tail helps them maintain their balance and grace when running after and leaping on prey. Cats without tails or with injured tails do learn to balance. Experts feel that the Manx (no tail) and the Japanese Bobtail (short puff of a tail like a rabbit’s) are born with special sensors in the inner ear that compensate for the lack of a tail for balance.
- To keep kitty warm. Larger-breed cats such as Maine Coons sometimes wrap their tails tightly around them for added warmth in the cold.
- To help kitty communicate their messages to us and other cats based on the position, movement and shape of the tail. Other animals may misinterpret what a cat is saying with his tail. For example, a dog moves (wags) his tail from side to side when he is happy. Whereas a cat, moves (swishes) his tail from side to side when he is angry.
Experts have provided us with interpretations of what a cat is saying with their tails. We, as cat caretakers, must look not only at the tail but also at other body language and the surrounding environment to try to understand what our cats are saying. Jackson Galaxy points out the following: kittens should stay with their moms for the first 12 weeks because some cat language is learned from the mother. If a cat is separated from their mother at 4 – 6 weeks, they have not had an opportunity to hone their communication skills.
As you will observe in the following list, the differences in the descriptions of some of the tail movements differ only by very fine points.
- AFFECTION: Erect with whole length or tip quivering gently.
- AFRAID: Lowered and fluffed out. “See ‘Fear.’ (same tail movement.)
- AGGRESSION & MIGHT ATTACK: Arched and bristled; may attack if further provoked. Cat is torn between offense & defense. If the tail straightens out, see the next entry.
- AGGRESSION & READY TO ATTACK: Straight up and fully bristled; feels threatened. Will usually stand sideways to an intruder & try to appear big. (Loud yowling might accompany this)
- ANGRY (very angry): Swishing violently from side to side; sometimes hitting the wall or floor making a thumping sound. Spirit says in this week's post that he is tail-thumpin' mad because his friends aren't coming to visit us this year. The thumping or violent swishing might be accompanied by a low growl.
- ANGRY OR IRRITATED: Swishing slowly from side to side: “Stop petting me.” This warning is called: “The Prelude to a Hiss.” It might also be the Prelude to a Bite if we don’t heed the warning. So, watch your cat’s signs. If he is tensing, stop petting. Some cats offer their tummies for tummy rubs but then become agitated and bite or scratch. And some cats, like Spirit, love tummy rubs.
- ANNOYED: Still but tip twitches intensely. (Some cats display this tail movement when they are very happy.)
- IRRITATED: Still but tip twitches occasionally. (Some cats also display this tail movement when they are pensive.)
- FEAR: Lowered and fluffed out
- FEARFUL (Highly): Between the legs, hugging the cat’s underside with the tail tip poking out near its chin. Per Jackson Galaxy, this might happen in a vet’s office and is a reflexive move (just like a dog) to protect their most sensitive and vulnerable area, the tummy.
- FRIENDLY, INQUISITIVE, PLAYFUL & APPROACHABLE: Upright but tip is tilted over, either forward or back. This is variously described as a shepherd’s hook or a question mark.
- FRIENDLY WITH CHEERFUL GREETING: Upright including tip – straight up. Jackson Galaxy calls this the “Hello Flag” and notes that this is usually followed by rubbing against you. This is frequently seen at mealtime.
- FRIENDLY WITH VERY CHEERFUL GREETING: Erect & tip is softly curved. He is very happy to see you.
- HAPPY & CHASING: Raised & fluffed out (the “Big Tail.”)
- HAPPY & SITTING: Wrapped around the body while seated. Jackson Galaxy calls this the “fireplace cat.” He also notes that in a threatened cat, this is a defensive posture.
- ILLNESS: Fully lowered & tucked between hind legs. The cat may be ill. *See ‘Submissive, Frightened or Defeat’ (the cat may also be showing another cat submissiveness or defeat).
- INTEREST IS BEGINNING: Slightly raised and softly curved.
- MATE READINESS: Held to one side & the female cat is crouched or with rump in air, she is ready to mate.
- RELAXED & COMFORTABLE: Curved gently downward, then curved up again at the tip.
- STALKING OR READY TO POUNCE: Extends straight out and might twitch or quiver. This is called the “hunting twitch” & is seen when stalking prey (real or toy). This subtle movement communicates his intentions to other cats without alerting their prey. Usually accompanied by the hind quarters rapidly shifting back & forth & claws extended.
- SUBMISSIVE, FRIGHTENED OR DEFEATED: Fully lowered & tucked between hind legs. The cat is showing defeat, submissiveness to another cat or is uncertain about something in their environment. *See ‘Illness’ above (the cat might also be ill).
- UNCERTAIN: Low, almost dragging the ground means they are unsure of a situation & could be aggressive. However, Mother Nature Network notes the following: Some breeds, like Persians and Scottish Folds, tend to carry their tails low even when they’re in playful moods. This is true of Inkee-Bear, Sophee and Gracee. They are Scottish Folds just like their older brother, a rescue Scottish Fold, who has 'crossed over the bridge.'
Information for this article was gathered and summarized from the following books: “How To Be Your Cat’s Best Friend” by Elizabeth Randolph and “Think Like a Cat” by Pam Johnson-Bennet and the following websites: Jackson Galaxy; Mother Nature Network; Cat World; Pets – Leslie Carter of Demand Media; Catipedia; as well as experiences with my cats which, of course, includes the Cat Authors.