The Social Function of Tail Up in Domestic Cats


This article on the social function of tail up in domestic cats is based a scientific research paper of very similar title prepared by S.Cafazzo and E.Natoli. and which was published on the internet by Science Direct. The right to read the entire document was purchased by me. It is a summarized version in simpler language.

The study took place in Rome in a large courtyard in a place called, “Carbatella”. The cat colony studied consisted of four males and five females – all neutered. One juvenile male was intact. The cats were being fed by people.

Cats Greeting – photo Justin Frisch (Flickr)

Adaptability of domestic cat – group living

The wildcat is essentially a solitary creature. I have recently built a page on The Social Organization of Serval Cats in which, in the first line, I refer to this. Only the lion can be said to live in groups (prides) as the feral domestic cat and cat companion often does. Domestication has, it could be argued, forced the domestic cat to adapt to group living on the basis that food sources dictate the home ranges of the domestic cat. Where there is a single source of food such as a fishery business, cats will congregate, forming groups.

Group living results in hierarchical structures (“linear dominance hierarchy among males and females in a social group of rural cats”). At the top of the hierarchy is the dominant cat. Dominance is maintained through aggression (“overt aggression”). A higher position in the hierarchical rank correlates with a greater amount of aggressions given (sounds like the human race!).

Neutered cats show less aggression particularly between males, which is probably due to less testosterone. This affects how often the tail up position is employed as the tail up position is part of the “affiliative behaviors” (meaning behavior to encourage affiliations and relationships) of cats living in groups.

The social function of tail up in domestic cats

In layperson’s terms this post is about the reasons why domestic cats place their tails in the upright position in a social setting. “The tail up is a signal of communication.”

Cats give off a lot of signals to other cats in a variety of ways and the tail’s position in conjunction with other signals such as posture provides the receiving cat with a signal that means something more than a simple greeting. Our cat companions probably also use the same signals when communicating with us. We are, after all, mother cats to our cat companions – they see us as the parent and provider and we keep them in perpetual kittenhood1. Kneading us is an example of this.

The study found that the tail up position was used more frequently by low ranking cats. This is because the tail up position is a signal to the receiving cat that the cat intends to interact amicably with that cat. This is because the low ranking cat does not want to suffer aggression from the higher ranking cat. Higher ranking cats are more likely to be aggressive as mentioned above (“a positive correlation between rank order and frequency of aggression was found”). The lower ranking cat presumably feels that he or she will lose in a fight and does not want to fall out with the higher ranking cat. This is in the interest of self preservation. Accordingly, the tail up position serves, “to inhibit intraspecific aggressive behavior” i.e. stops fighting. The receiving cat can choose to respond by reciprocal behavior thereby increasing group cohesion (that last point is mine).

When a cat with its tail up approaches another cat there is a greater likelihood of the other cat responding in kind. Also the receiving cat is more likely to approach the sender of the tail up signal more quickly.

The low ranking cat’s tail up position also acknowledges their social status and transmits that to the higher ranking cat.

Tail position as a part of other affiliative behaviors

Affiliative behavior refers to behavior that is designed to create relationships or affiliations with other cats.

There are two other affiliative behaviors: sniffing nose and rubbing. The tail up behavior was used more often alone rather than as a part of the other behaviors. “22.73% of interactions of tail up were associated with sniffing and rubbing.”

Rubbing was preceded by tail up often but individual cat personalities naturally generates a variety of behaviors over and above affiliative behaviors.

Of all the adult cats females were responsible for 69.05% of all affiliative behavior which mainly included rubbing and tail up, whereas the males took the initiative with sniffing nose behavior. Most (81.75%) affiliative interactions took place between adult females and males. Of interactions between same sex it was the males who did this more than the females (14.29% to 3.97% respectively). “Tail up and rubbing was generally displayed by females towards males.” Sniffing nose was more often used by males towards females. Overall females took the initiative more than males to make affiliations.

Evolution of the tail up position

The study says that tail up has not been seen to occur in any other species of felids other than the lion (and of course the domestic cat).

There are three theories:

  1. Kittens greet their mother with the tail held vertically. They rub their forehead and their upper part of the head against the mother’s chin. This behavior could have been extended to other adult cats and then evolved into the tail up greeting/affiliative behavior. Note: you can see this is the classic adult cat to person head butt. The adult cat is acting as a kitten in this relationship. In this video there are two large head butts to Kathrin Stucki by Titan an F1 Savannah raised by her.
  2. The tail up behavior may have evolved from the sexual behavior of the female in the “presentation ritual”, when she presents her hind quarters, with tail raised, to the male in estrus. The study refers to a study on the behavior of Serengeti lions.
  3. It may have evolved from scent marking behavior (spraying) when the cat raises the tail and jets urine horizontally. However, research of the evolutionary lineages through studies of Geoffroy’s cat, caracal and jungle cat show that none of these cats use the tail up but display rubbing. However this possible origin for the tail up behavior cannot be ruled out they say as it “may have evolved at an early stage, possibly amongst one of the undomesticated species of Felis silvestris.”

The lion

The lion (Panthera leo), as mentioned lives in prides and lives “socially” therefore. Lions employ the tail up with rubbing in the same manner as domestic cats. When the lion is head rubbing and sniffing the tail is held vertically “but tipped limply towards the lion being greeted.” According for lions tail up is an affiliative behavior.

The social function of tail up in domestic cats – Note:

1. Desmond Morris – Cat Watching.

From The social function of tail up in domestic cats to Domestic Cats

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