13 cat tail postures and movements and what they mean

Magnificent plumed tail

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Cats owners want to know what their domestic cat’s tail movements and positions mean. I thought I had done a page on this but apparently not so here it is. There are also two large links to cat tail types and an article about cat tail anatomy.

The tail is a ‘balancing organ‘. It is designed to help keep a cat in balance when climbing and performing difficult movements which is why the snow leopard’s tail is the world’s longest (they hunt on 40 degree rocky outcrops chasing blue sheep). Because of this it reflects a cat’s varying moods. Each tail movement and posture tells us and other cats about the cat’s emotional state.

Tail is arched and bristled. We know this one: the cat is in defensive mode but ready to attack if needs must. The tail is bristled to widen it to maximise its size with the intention of deterring the confronted animal.

Cat fear written into DNA

Tail is straight and bristled to its maximum. This signals that the cat is aggressive.

Tail held to one side. This tail posture is performed by the female cat wen she is in heat and ready to be mounted by the male. She moves her tail to one side as a signal to the male who when he sees it knows that he can mount her without being attacked.

Tail held erect and quivering. This tail posture and movement takes place (1) when spraying urine to mark territory and (2) when the cat is friendly towards and pleased to see his/her owner. I have seen it in regards to the cat/owner relationship. It may have the meaning of a friendly confirmation of the identity of the cat performing the movement and posture.

Cat Tail Types

Tail held high with the tip twitching. This is a reduced variant of tail wagging and indicates mild irritation. If the twitching develops into something more powerful it may presage a swipe from a paw.

Random bred cat with erect tail
Random bred cat with erect tail. Photo copyright Helmi Flick.

Tail swished violently from side to side. This indicates mental conflict in the cat performing it. It is as if the cat is performing a mental balancing act between two options. If the tail swings vigorously from side to side it normally means that the cat is about to attack.

Tail wagging from side to side. Once again this indicates a mental state of conflict. The cat wants to do two things simultaneously but ‘each impulse blocks the other’. Often observers see this body language as indicating anger. You will see it when a cat is on an open lawn with no cover looking at prey about 20 feet away. The cat wants to attack but instinctively holds back because of a lack of cover. These two thoughts come to the fore rapidly and the cat can’t make up his mind. The tail wagging is the physical manifestation of this indecision.

Tail lowered and fluffed up. The cat is actively fearful.

What Are Cat Tails Made Of?

Tail lowered and possibly tucked between the hind legs. The cat is submissive and defeated and signals his/her lowly status.

Tail fully erect and tip stiffly vertical. A friendly, unconditional, greeting display. This signal comes from when the adult cat as a kitten when greeting his/her mother. The kitten is inviting his mother to inspect his rear end. This tail position is therefore indicative of the cat’s slightly subordinate status at that moment perhaps to present a friendly signal to the other cat.

Tail held erect with tip titled over. The cat is friendly, interested and greeting another cat with ‘slight reservations’.

Tail raised slightly and softly curved. The cat is becoming interested in something.

Tail curves gently down and then up again at the top. The cat is relaxed and content with what is happening around him/her.

P.S. Some of these cat tail postures and movements may be affected by the American Ringtail cat’s natural tail position:

Dutch Ringtail Cat
Dutch Ringtail Cat. He is a classic (blotched) tabby cat too.

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