Any cat owner who has some experience with dogs inevitably has some misconceptions about their cat’s tail. Sometimes it wags back and forth, sometimes it shakes, and sometimes it can even slowly flick from left to right.
Often, new cat owners will mistake this as their cat being happy, much in the same way that a dog wags his or her tail. The truth of the matter is that cats make use of their tails for two very specific purposes.
The first is for balance, and the second is to communicate with both other cats, as well as with people. That means while tailless cat breeds like the Manx do exist, tails are a critically important appendage not only for their day-to-day life around your house but for you as well in your efforts to understand them.
Tails are an Important Part of Your Cat’s Health
First, we need to take a quick look at some of the features of cats’ tails to help you better understand the way in which they work. After all, you care about their teeth, eyes, and claws, so you should be considering the health of your cat’s tail as well.
Typically, cat tails tend to have around 20 vertebrae (although this can vary in either direction based on breed) that extend outward from the spinal column towards the tip. These vertebrae are protected by muscles that control the movements of the tail, much in the same way that your legs are controlled by the thigh and calf muscles.
This helps add strength, but also stability and versatility, making it critical for your cat’s dexterity (which will be looked at in the next section). This also allows the muscles to help absorb any damage to the tail if something were to fall on it, preventing the bones from being easily fractured.
The downside of this complicated anatomy though is that tails should always be treated with the same care as any other body part since any damage could result in permanent, long-lasting injuries.
For example, the nerves governing your cat’s impulses extend throughout their entire body and are typically protected by the spinal column. Since the spine ends where the tail begins, the nerves no longer have this rigid protection but still have to stretch through the tail to make sure that the cat can feel different sensations, like pain.
Extensive damage to the tail can sever these nerve endings and cause complications that could affect their ability to use the tail at all, or even result in critical intestinal issues!
Remember, nerves are all connected to one another, so damage in one area can travel to connected areas of the body. This means that under no circumstances is your cat’s tail a toy! Children shouldn’t be pulling them, and you should never consider getting them clipped.
Cats Use Their Tails to Balance
While it’s definitely complex, this network of bones and muscles is the driving force behind the exceptional balance that all cats share. They’re agile, acrobatic little creatures, and these graceful movements are thanks in large part to the added weight that their tails provide.
Anyone who runs or loves fast cars knows that sharp turns are always hardest to do at full speed. This is because whether it’s your car or your body, you need to exert a tremendous amount of force to shift the weight at tight angles which cause stability issues, causing you to slip, stumble, or even fall over.
Cats, however, thrive at fast speeds. Domestic house cats (yes, that also means the kitty sleeping on your sofa) regularly reach sprints of up to 30 miles per hour so that they can keep up with, and eventually catch their prey.
Still, they’re able to make the sharp turns necessary to cut off escape angles and take new attack routes because as their body moves in one direction, their tail moves in the other. This distributes their weight more efficiently and makes sure that they don’t slip while at top speed.
This distribution of weight is also critically important when balancing themselves. We’ve all seen cats climb trees and walk on branches, and the reason they can do this so effortlessly is that the tail ensures that as one paw steps down, the tail counters that weight to prevent slipping (hence the term “counter-weight”).
Even on the rare occasions that they do fall, cats “always land on their feet” because they can use the weight of their tail to rotate their body and land properly. It might look less impressive when Stripe is using this handy little tool to balance himself on the back of the sofa, but it’s worthy of admiration nonetheless.
Cats also Use Their Tails to Communicate
This is the aspect of cat language that many owners have a lot of trouble understanding. If you’ve done some research when bringing home your new rescue, you probably know that wild cats don’t meow at one another. Instead, cats rely on their body language to communicate.
This tends to be the reason why new cat owners often think their pet is being aloof or mysterious when they’re being particularly quiet. In reality, almost all of the talking that cats do is done through their tail, it’s just that humans haven’t learned how to decipher it yet.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at some of the most common positions and gestures to help you better understand what your cat is trying to tell you. Remember that this is a universal cat language that you can also see in the wild, so the faster you learn what the different movements mean, the faster you can start bonding with them.
Standing Straight in the Air
This is the position that you’re most likely to see when you come home from a long day of work, or when your cat is just getting ready for dinner. The tail stays straight in the air, and lets you know that they’re comfortable, happy, and healthy, and is generally a clear indication that if you choose to pet your cat, he or she will be more than happy to oblige. In cases of extreme happiness, you can even see a slight twitch that occurs at the tip of the tail if you look close enough.
This can be a confusing position to distinguish from the above, because the “curve” that we’re talking about is never a large, banana-shaped one, but is instead a slight bend at the tip. This is a tell-tale sign that your furry friend is curious about something you’re doing. Whether it’s a noise that he wants to investigate or an item you have in your hand that he finds particularly intriguing, a curved tail means you should let him in on the action! Another good idea is to try throwing his favorite toy to see if he’s interested in playing since one tends to lead to the other.
A stereotypical “Halloween cat” pose, a puffy tail, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t always mean that they’re scared. This fluffed-up look is actually achieved by having the individual hairs of the tail stand on end (much like when we get goosebumps), and its effect is to make the cat look bigger to potential threats or predators. A cat with a puffy tail could very well run away and hide, but it could also attack. If you see your cat like this, treat them gently and sense their mood., Sometimes it’s better to leave them alone so that they can settle down before trying to interact with them.
Tucked Between Their Legs
As opposed to the above, this is the position that always indicates fear. More importantly, though, this is typically a response to viewing or hearing something that is already an established threat that has caused them harm in the past. It could have been negative experiences at the vet or a particularly traumatic sound, but regardless of the cause, it’s extremely important to spend some time comforting them so that their fear isn’t encouraged, or worse, reinforced.
Swishing from Side to Side
The most confusing and pain-inducing tail movement is the slow flick from side to side that gradually increases in speed. This is both a sign of concentration and annoyance, however, the result is usually the same: a nasty scratch or bite. Pay close attention to Mittens throughout the day, and you might catch a glimpse of her staring at her favorite toy with her tail slowly flicking before she pounces. This is an example of the tail indicating concentration on potential prey.
On the other hand, if you’ve been cuddling your cat for a few minutes and start to see this same tail movement, then that’s a sign that they’re no longer enjoying being pet and want you to stop. This is often the reason why an owner might say that their cat “attacks them out of nowhere.” It’s not a spontaneous reaction (except in the case of illness), but is instead because people have trouble reading the warning signs.
Almost all the movements you’ll see from your cat’s tail will be one of these five, which means that understanding each of them will give you much-needed insight into how they’re feeling. If you ever notice unnatural or spastic movements though, it might be time to get your cat taken to the vet, as it’s not uncommon for older cats to develop compulsive disorders that result in excessive tail movements.
Ultimately, a cat’s tail is more important to their daily life than many people imagine. Whether they’re using it to run, balance, steady themselves or even tell you how they’re feeling, proper knowledge of how your cat uses his or her tail is crucial to understanding their overall health and can bring you closer to your favorite feline than ever before.