“Tail Talk”: The Fascinating Language of Cats

The other day I was perusing a message boards in one of the cat communities to which I belong. I ran across a very strange question posed by an owner who was quite upset and concerned about his cat’s usual tail position.

He asked:

“My cat’s tail is always pointing straight up at the ceiling. All the cats I have ever owned always had their tails relaxed and pointed downwards. It’s annoying to me that my cat always has his tail up in the air because then I am forced to see his not-so-“butt”. Is there anything I can do to keep his tail pointing downwards?”

It simply amazes me that folks who have cats don’t understand tail “language”, thereby missing what their cats are communicating. If this person had been fluent in “tail” language” he would have been overjoyed to know that his kitty is happy, content, and telling him that “all is right with the world.”

Since using their tails is one of major ways that cats communicate with us (and other cats) I am positive that kitties would appreciate it greatly if their humans took the time and made an effort to understand them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all kitty guardians became fluent in the amazing language of the tail? If their guardians were fluent, they would be absolutely fascinated by all the interesting and even sometimes very important messages that their cats are conveying.

Understanding tail language is an essential part of kitty keeping. Being able to translate all the subtle and not so subtle nuances in the slightest motion of the tail is crucial in understanding cats. While a tail pointed up in the air is a very positive message, just a small droop on the tip of the tail can be translated as “I am happy, but something has me wondering”.

Tails carried downward generally means that cats are calm and relaxed, while a bristled tail tucked between the legs and held close to the body conveys anxiety, fear and/or submission. But watch out if a cat’s tail is humped and resembles a bottle- brush. This tail communication means the cat is extremely frightened and/or defensive and if the cat is feeling threatened he is getting into attack mode. And when the tail is bristled and is standing straight up or out behind, with the ears laid flat against the head; this is a cat who is ready to attack. Definitely give this frightened, angry kitty plenty of space.

Feline Tail Talk

Feline Tail Talk. Image in public domain – Correction the image by Sarah Hartwell of Messybeast.com (see her page).

This said, our two Oriental kitties present an interesting exception to the usual meaning of a bristled tail. Apparently Sir Hubble Pinkerton and Dr. Hush Puppy‘s tail behavior is a genetic trait, because the breeder told me that it’s a common characteristic in her line.

When their tails starts bristling from the tip, rather than the base, with the bristle spreading downwards; this means our cats are ecstatically happy. So when we see this type of bushy tail, it makes us happy too!

What piques my interest is if the “rumpy” Manx and the Japanese Bobtail feel frustrated without the ability of using their tails to communicate.

What do you think? Tell us in a comment.

Jo

P.S. from Michael: The classic tail up greeting comes to mind. Perhaps this gentleman’s cat is just pleased to see him and demonstrates that with the tail up position.

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Comments

“Tail Talk”: The Fascinating Language of Cats — 31 Comments

  1. To have an animal in your house whilst at the same time having a problem with seeing that animal behaving naturally smacks of stupidity and ignorance.

    I’m sorry but it does. This lady or man sounds like the typical one who cares about her furniture and wants her cat to match it – and who probably declaws. Anybody who denies to herself that cats have ass holes probably denies to herself that cats eed their claws. IT’s the same thing. The same retarded mentality that makes one embarrassed to be human.

    • yea exactly The cat in either situition should be allowered to do what ever he/she wants to do. I dont worry about cat making marks on furniture. As this is there house too. I often wandered what it meant when the cats show their behind as rebel does this often. but im not too worried. Ive taken Tiger to vet today he was ok. His abcess wasnt as bad as thought. They gave him vaccination and as his wound wasnt as bad. he must of been trying to heal it. So am relieved hes ok now.

    • I think that this person who Jo quotes is squeamish about seeing his cat’s bottom. This is a pretty typical human response because we are squeamish about naturalness and natural body functions etc..

      A lot of people like to live in a world that is not quite reality. Reality is a bit too harsh for them. Being offended by the sight of a cat’s rear end is an example of failing to live in the real world.

      I think other an article about that because I know someone else who didn’t want me to see her cat’s bottom.

      Note: this comment was dictated as usual and in the original version there were some silly interpretations of my dictation!. Sorry if you saw them.

      • btw they even make little covers that you hang aroud the tail which are supposed to hand over the sensitive area in question. Like a little circle of fabric with a string to loop it around the base of the tail. I saw an ad for this online. Almost as weird as ‘neuticles’.

        • Michael, that’s totally outrageous and what a slap in the face to the cat. My feeling is if people want to use this “screen” should not have a cat in the first place. Get a cat statue, which has no “natural” instincts.

          As far as Neuticle” is concerned, men who are that insecure about their masculinity would do well with a cat statue complete with ….. well you get the message. LOL

  2. It is ironic that the cat which you referred to in the article has his or her tail up which as you say is a sign of contentment and on my research is also a sign of warm greeting. It is ironic because not only does the cat’s owner not recognise that pleasant signal, what he sees as a result of the signal being given is something that he dislikes, namely, the cat’s rear end.

    This cat owner has turned something good into something bad, which, if I’m honest is something that humans are rather good at. Cats never do something like that.

    One aspect of cat body language is tail position and although we know a lot more about it, I believe, that there is still a little bit more to learn even by the experts and I would estimate that 95% of cat owners are not fully in tune with what the positioning of a cat’s tail communicates.

    There is still a lot of education to do in the field of cat caretaking. The Internet has helped quite certainly. This is because there has been a massive proliferation of domestic cat websites over the last 7 years. I would estimate that the increase has been many thousands of percent. However, most of the interest in the domestic cat has been with respect to more frivolous things.

  3. I’m going to confess and say that I disagree with some of the domestic cat tail position signals in the picture in your article.

    For example, I disagree that when a domestic cat swishes her tail (thrashing as described in the picture) it automatically means that the cat is irritated or angry or excited.

    A tail which moves horizontally, sometimes along the ground, indicates indecision. Indecision is not quite the same thing as irritability although they can overlap.

    Also, I’m not completely in agreement with some of the other signals as described in the image. For example, the thickened tail is more about defensive aggression than bristling with anger. It is part of the overall body language of a cat when the cat makes himself look bigger to intimidate the opponent. It is more about controlled aggression than out and out aggression.

    I am not at at all sure about the “derisory” tail movement. I’m not sure that that is scientifically correct. I completely agree with your article but the illustration on it, I am dubious about to be honest.

    Update: I’ve just noticed that the image is by Sarah Hartwell and I have amended the caption accordingly. Despite the fact that Sarah has a wealth of knowledge about the domestic cat, I still disagree slightly with her interpretations.

  4. This person that asked the question just doesn’t get cat language at all. If you love an animal you know what all their language skills mean. Cats have so many subtle ways of communicating and if you don’t know them then you could find yourself with a bad situation. Cats so easily hide symptoms of illness but body language will tell you there is a problem. Tail language is a wonderful form of communication. Almost all of our cats walk with tails erect and in the case of the “kittens” their tails wag constantly. They are happy cats. Miss Mouse carries her tail out behind her. Her arthritis bothers and that is her way of telling me her feelings. I agree with Jo though. Some cats have their own special meanings. Molly McButter will go out into the cat enclosure and enjoy the fresh air. Then she runs into the house totally bristled tail straight up and wide wild eyes. She loves the outside and that is her way of says just that. LOL
    Thanks for a great article and I hope this misinformed purrson learns tail language soon.

  5. Cats tails are fascinating to me and I wish I had a working one to display my emotions, but I only have a pin on one for fund raising 🙁

  6. My Shadow, a tortie girl, flicks her tail at me; on me; etc…. all the time when she is contentedly lying in my lap or on the bed next to me (or on me, what I refer to as “making cat couch” ie: I am the cat’s couch….LOL) I can tell the difference in tail flicking on the occasion when she is perturbed or annoyed, but generally, she does this when happy. However, when I first became a cat guardian I did not know anything about cat behavior. I learned by asking people who were more knowledgeable than I and by reading. Before condemning the person who Jo referred to originally, I think we should take the opportunity to present information (as was done in Jo’s article) and encourage cat guardians to learn all they can about their charges.

  7. Thanking you for another very informative and interesting article, Jo — and I hope the person posting about wanting their cats’ tails to be down has gained insight from your writings! In our family, I am glad to report, there are usually happy tails; our youngest, a feral lapcat of 9+, bristles her tail at the base when she’s getting overstimulated, and I know to go slow at that point with the handling, or I’ll be giving her something she loves — a “knuckle sandiwich” (she loves to gnaw on my fingers, and I actually like this as well!)

    • When I first met my late lady cat on the streets of London 20 odd years ago she peered out from under a car and saw me and her tail juddered which I took mean she was pleased to see me and hoped I would feed her. I did and much more.

      • Yeah, you were extremely privileged to receive the “tail shiver” so quickly from her 😉 Cats, of course, are extremely intelligent and perceptive beings. I always let THEM be the judge of guests — if there’s any dislike shown by my feline family members toward company, I take it very seriously. 😉

  8. My Malaika has some extra tail language that no-one has ever seen before. Does anyone know what this could mean?

  9. Malaika is capable of carrying her tail in the more usual positions (see photo), but this this exaggerated position seems to indicate a more flexible spine to tail joint and could be a genetic modification. Several other cats from the same area also show this tendency, but less so.
    She was taken by a breeder in Holland.

  10. I always think I should have kept her along with lots of other exceptional cats, but that would be a mess. I now don’t have any solid red or red/white long-haired females.. I do have 2 close relatives of Malaika. They are Neda and Nadir but they are short-haired carriers of the LH’d gene. . I would need a solid red LH male but I have only Mayis who is red/white. I should wait to see if a solid red LH’d male shows up.

  11. While I can’t say I am “fluent” in tail talk, I am reasonably confident that I mostly know what my kitties are saying. I certainly know when I am being “flipped off”! 🙂 My kitties generally do this to me after nail clippings and medications.

  12. You’re sure to like this one. I don;t think her tail is saying anything much but her eyes say a lot about her mood.

  13. well im abit confused about my ozzie tail as its crooked. Im not sure if hes been in a fight. Hes very defensive. Anytime i go anywwhere near his tail or behind im told to go away. Ive talked to other people who think he may of been raped but im not sure. He jsut seems to be in too much pain. If hes no better by monday will prob have to take him to vet. Not really looking fwd to that.

    • I wonder if his tail has been broken? He may have been involved in an accident. As far as I am aware tails do not get broken in cat fights that often or hardly at all. Who knows? But it seems like he has gone through some sort of trauma and that his tail may have been broken in which case there may be some other hidden minor injuries but I do not want to scaremonger.

  14. well hes been playing around with Jasmin now so maybe its just some trauma will prob have to take him to get looked at. Also hes very matted around that area quick abit. He’s calmed down abit now. Been resting all day. So hopefully its nothing major.

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