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Why Do Cats Wag Their Tail

↯ Key takeaway points

  • Cats wag their tails to communicate various emotions and messages.
  • A cat's tail can indicate happiness and confidence when held straight up and slightly curved at the tip.
  • A puffed out tail indicates that a cat feels threatened or frightened.
  • When hunting or excited, a cat's tail may move back and forth rapidly.
  • Cats may wrap their tails around their bodies when they are scared, defensive, in pain, or ill.
A pet lover passionate about educating readers about animal health and care. Love reading studies and recent research.
Zoo and wildlife doctor in veterinary medicine passionate about animal welfare and preventive medicine.
Published on
Tuesday 14 November 2023
Last updated on
Monday 30 October 2023
Why Do Cats Wag Their Tail
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Cats are such enigmatic creatures that understanding their inner thoughts can be challenging. Although cats cannot communicate their emotions through words, you can gain insight into her state of mind by observing how she holds and moves different body parts. The key to understanding your cat lies in mastering its body language, including its tail language.

Why Do Cats Wag Their Tail?

Like most animals with spines, a cat’s tail is essential to its survival and day-to-day functioning. It helps them move, keep their balance, communicate with each other, control their body temperature, and even store energy.

A cat’s tail is made up of around 18-23 small bones called vertebrae. These are the same bones that make up the spine. At the end of the tail, the bones get smaller and smaller, and they are held together by muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Because of cats’ structure, their tails are very flexible and move in many different ways. 

Cats also use their flexible tails to show different emotions by wagging them in different ways and at different times. You can typically tell how your cat is feeling by looking at them and paying attention to the direction and pace of their waving tail. 

Cats, unlike dogs, do not always wag their tails to express anger or frustration. Cats wag their tails for various reasons, from friendly greetings to aggressive threats. Here are the different ways your cat’s tail can communicate:

They feel happy and confident

Even though cats don’t have the happy-tail wags that dogs can do, they can still do it when they’re happy and confident. They will walk around your house with their tails pointed straight up. Sometimes they also slightly curve the tip of their tail and twitch or wag it softly. 

This isn’t the same as a dog wagging its tail excitedly, but it’s one way your cat shows you that she’s content with life.

They feel threatened

A cat’s tail will puff up to twice its normal diameter or even greater if they suddenly feel threatened or is startled. They might also look bigger and more menacing by puffing out the rest of their fur. 

Your cat often does this when it spots a strange cat and gets the fight itch. Also, they may act this way when startled by a noise and have no idea what it is.

They are hunting

When cats hunt, their tails also move back and forth. This sometimes looks like a quick swish or even a steady thump. It often happens when your cat looks out the window at birds and focuses on their prey. They might also make “clicking” noises while watching the birds, and their fur might move slightly.

A cat’s tail can help it keep its balance while hunting, so when your cat is about to pounce on a bug in your house, it might wag its tail as well.

They feel annoyed

If a cat doesn’t like you, it will tell you by flicking its tail or thumping it on the ground. This scenario usually happens when you try to pet the cat or pick it up. You may think you are showing them love, but they may not like it and look nervous and tense. You need to be able to read their body language to know when they are ready to hear it.

They are sleeping or lying down

Your cat might twitch his tail while dreaming when he is in a deep sleep. Or, his tail might twitch, just like your muscles might do when you are sleeping. But sometimes, he might not be sleeping as deeply as you think.

If you call your cat’s name and it does not come to you but slowly starts to wag or move its tail, they probably awake and trying to decide if it wants to get up. Your cat will let you know they hear and see you by gently swishing its tail.

They are in Pain

When a cat is in pain, it will sometimes wag its tail as if trying to get its mind off. If you see your cat lying down and wagging its tail slowly, maybe sweeping it across the floor, pay attention to see if it shows any other signs of pain. If the cat is also sleeping a lot, not eating much, hiding, or meowing, this is a sign that something is wrong. 

Get your cat to a vet and have them check for any underlying health problems. If, on the other hand, your cat’s tail is limp and does not move at all, it may have hurt its tail.

What Are The Different Types of Tail Wagging?

Cats use their tails to communicate with other cats, much as dogs do. In fact, the movements of a cat’s tail can be used to tell what mood the cat is in–whether it’s happy or angry, for example. Let’s take a closer look at the different types of your cat’s tail wagging.

Tail Wrapped

Cats may greet each other by curling their tails around people and intertwining their tails with other cats, just as we do with handshakes or hugs. Tail wrapping is an affiliative behavior that shows a willingness to interact with others.

Swishing Tail

A wagging or swishing tail indicates excitement, thought, mild irritation, or your cat is in pain. A cat’s tail can suggest that your cat is paying attention to something outside the window, such as a bird.

Puffed Out Tail

When your cat adopts the classic Halloween cat pose, with a puffed tail, arched back, and upright hair, they are startled or frightened by a sudden, severe threat. Their hair stands on end (piloerection) to make them appear more prominent. This is a defensive response indicating that your cat prefers to be alone.

This tail position is frequently triggered by other animals in the yard, approaching dogs, visitors in the house, or loud noises. If your cat’s tail stands up, remove the stressors from their environment and approach them slowly, so they don’t perceive you as a threat.

Low Wagging Tail

If a cat is frightened or anxious, it may lower its tail below the level of its back. If your cat’s tail is tucked between its legs, they are either terrified or in pain.

Shivering Tail

When a cat is happy to see you or another cat, it may shiver its tail. Urine marking can occur when a cat quivers their tail while holding it straight up and backing up against a vertical surface.

Question-Mark Shaped Tail

You might notice that your cat’s tail looks like a question mark at times, standing upright and curling at the end. This cat tail language indicates that your cat is content and approachable.

When your cat’s tail curls up and wags, it may invite you to interact with him. However, most cats prefer to be petted around the facial glands on their cheeks, under their chin, and next to their ears.

Straight Up Tail or Flag Pole

If a cat’s tail is upright it feels confident, social and approachable. This cat tail language denotes a friendly greeting between cats, and kittens use it to greet their mothers.

In Cameron-Beaumont’s 1997 study, cats were willing to approach a cat-shaped silhouette with a raised tail but reluctant to approach the same silhouette with a lowered tail.

Why Do Cats Wrap Their Tail Around Their Bodies?

When your cat curls up with its tail wrapped around its body, it feels scared, defensive, in pain, or ill. If you notice your cat acting this way, cut off all contact and ensure the home is free of potential sources of stress.

If your cat has been crouching with its tail tightly curled around its body for more than a few days, take it to the vet; this could be a sign of pain or illness. To fully understand your cat’s emotional state, you should observe more than just its tail movements. 

Still, the tail is likely the most expressive part of a cat’s body language. Your relationship with your cat will benefit greatly from your efforts to decipher its body language.

Why Do Cats Wag Their Tail: FAQs

Do you still wonder why cats wag their tails? If you have any further questions, feel free to browse the FAQ section.

Can cats control their tails?

Cats can control their tails from the base to the tip and do this without thinking about it. Cats need to be able to move their tails to show how they feel without speaking. But even though cats’ tails are important, cats who are born without them or lose them because of an accident can do just fine without them.

Why do cats move their tails?

Cats wag their tails when happy, scared, or in pain. However, wagging tails can also be a show of affection in some cases. You can typically tell how your cat feels by paying attention to the direction and pace of their wagging tail, as well as other body language cues.

Do cats communicate through tail wagging?

Cats communicate by moving their tails, using their eyes, ears, and body movements. Reading your cat’s tail will help you better understand your pet. You can tell if a cat is sick or hurt by watching how it moves its tail.

Is tail wagging a medical symptom?

Cats do not wag their tails because it is a sign of illness but because it is part of their normal behavior. To express these emotions, a cat may wag its tail when it is sad, annoyed, or in pain. However, there are times when a wagging tail is indicative of affection.

Should I worry about my cat’s wagging tail?

When your cat wags its tail, you should not be alarmed. If your cat thrashes their tail or thumps it on the ground, this indicates that they are irritated, annoyed, or angry. This means your cat requires more personal space. To put it another way, if you are petting your cat and it starts whipping its tail, that is its way of telling you to stop.

Just remember that each cat is different. This is a rough outline of what each type of tail movement can mean, but every cat has its special language. Spend lots of time with your cat and learn to read its tail movements. As time goes on, you will learn the hidden meanings behind their tail wags and swishes.

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