Cats are some of the most complex, curious and compassionate critters I know. Deciphering cat behavior is far more complicated and challenging than most other animals. Too often, we mistakenly apply canine experiences to explain why a feline acts a certain way. That doesn’t work. Cats are not small dogs. A good example is understanding why cats wag their tails. For dogs, it’s a clear signal of happiness, excitement or maybe a little nervousness. For cats, it’s an entirely different story.
For starters, cats don’t simply wag their tails. How they wag, what their body looks like while wagging and when they wave their “fifth leg” all carry significant meaning. Decoding feline body language is a science with many unanswered questions. Let’s examine what we know about feline tail expressions and how it can help you be a better cat parent.
When two cats greet each other, you may have noticed they approach with tails extended high in the air. An elevated tail held upright is a cat’s way of saying, “Hello!” Mutual head rubbing, called allorubbing, often follows the tail greeting. Cats will also use this common tail greeting with human family members. Next time your cat approaches you, look out for a tail greeting.
If the hair along your cat’s tail and spine is standing upright, called piloerection, watch out. Erect hairs along the back of a cat signal fear and defensive aggression. The theory is the cat is trying to appear larger to intimidate a potential enemy. In this case, something, maybe even you, spooked them. The classic “’fraidy cat” or “Halloween cat” is often depicted with hair standing up and is a universal sign a cat means business. The key lesson is that piloerection is the result of fear, not outright aggression. Whenever I see a cat with hair-on-end, I calm myself even more, slow down my movements further and do everything in my power to relax the cat and reassure them I mean no harm.
Of course, some cats are aggressive. You can spot offensive aggression by a tail arched upwards at the base (near the body) and then curled down toward the legs. You may or may not see piloerection. This is a subtler posture and is a cat’s final visual warning before they strike. Unfortunately, many truly aggressive cats learn to conceal this display until the last second before attacking. If you spy this tail position, back off.
There are a few variations of feline tail wagging. This first often accompanies a tail greeting. This type of tail wag is identified as an easy back-and-forth wave of an upright tail. It’s a further statement that the cat is happy, comfortable and content. Much head rubbing follows. Another tail wag occurs whenever your kitty lovingly wraps their tail around your leg or arm. A gentle grasp, release and tail flipping indicates you’re loved.
A gentle, slow, side-to-side swish is another tail wag that hints play. If you’re loving on your cat and notice the tail swish, don’t be surprised if a palm pounce follows. You’ll often observe tail swishing when playing with toys or feather dusters.
Cats will also wag and twitch their tail when deeply concentrating. These short, quick tics are typically observed when “window hunting.” The theory is cats are so focused on virtually stalking prey outside their window that they mimic some of their instinctive predatory postures.
Finally, remember that tail arched near the back and then carried down low by the legs? If you see that and a twitching tail, really back off. That really is your last warning, if you’re lucky.
I’d like to add one additional tail wag: pain. As a veterinarian, I often see cats with illnesses and injuries that cause discomfort. Because cats are incredibly adept at hiding pain, I carefully look for subtle tail twitches. If your cat isn’t feeling well and you spot them waving their tail while laying down, it could be a sign of pain. To me, that is a cat’s way of crying, “Help.”
Cats are amazing animals. We’re just beginning to crack their communication codes. My best advice is to begin closely observing your cat at play, relaxing, eating and hanging out. You’ll begin to understand your cat’s normal postural and behavioral vocabulary. When they’re stressed or sick, you’ll be better equipped to identify these changes earlier and seek help sooner. Until then, keep those tails held high and wagging!