The tail of the cat and its movements: how to decipher the important signals

Soft and enveloping, often swishing and capable of hypnotic, rhythmic movements, the tail is an essential element of beauty, mobility and expression for a cat. Far from being purely ornamental – the tail helps the cat to maintain balance during jumps – it also serves as a tool to communicate its mood and intent.

Of course, man doesn’t naturally possess all the feline cognitive tools he needs to decipher the tail messages expressed by his cat, that’s why we thought it might be useful to delve a little deeper in to the meaning of the most common tail movements. We have done this below, with the assistance of Dr Maria Grazia Calore, a veterinary surgeon, and expert in pet behaviour:

Tail “question mark”

We shouldn’t be concerned when we see our cat with its tail held high, either vertically or with a curve at the top like a question mark. This tail position indicates that our feline is offering us a warm welcome and expressing its joy at seeing us again.

High tail that “vibrates”

Green light again: the cat is friendly and happy to meet us. Be careful, though, because a cat marking its territory with urine can also adopt this very same pose.

Tail gathered near the body

Have you seen statuettes depicting placid cats sitting with their tails close to their bodies? When a real kitten adopts this position, it shows the world that it feels at ease.

Tail tucked away under the body

This placement of the tail should put us on alert: the cat is afraid or is feeling uncomfortable. Often alongside this signal, the cat might assume a squatting position, with its ears back and pupils dilated.

Big tail

If your cat’s tail looks like a spiky toilet brush, then it is very afraid. The act of making its tail bigger is a self-defence mechanism adopted by the animal to try to look more imposing and menacing. It also bristles its hackles (the hairs on the back of its neck) to extend this movement. The positioning of this brush-like tail can vary but still conveys the same message whether the tail is held under the body, is arched with the tip downwards (in this case it’s named ‘Halloween cat’) or is held high.

Arched tail with the tip down

Expect a feline trick if you see a curved tail with the tip down; this cat is probably planning an attack. However, this tail placement may also indicate fear (as described above).

Tail swishing from side to side (could affect the whole tail or only the tip)

Perhaps the most evocative of all tail movements; the tail sweeps from side to side denoting restlessness, an inner conflict, or uncertainty about a situation. It can occur when the cat is in pain or physical discomfort or even when it spots its prey through a window.

Aside from the plethora of possible tail movement meanings, man must also be mindful to other forms of cat communication, such as vocalisations; posture, ear and eye movements to get a clearer overall picture of how his cat is feeling. This is especially the case for tailless breeds, such as the Isle of Man, the Japanese bobtail, and the Cymric. Fortunately for these breeds, there aren’t any issues with survival; in contrast, a wild cat such as a cheetah would be at a loss without its tail. Cheetahs use their tails as rudders to execute fast turns during the hunt, and without this essential tool’s help they may not easily survive in the wild.