What is a cat’s tail for?


  • it is used for ‘normal movement’¹ and the tail
  • reflects emotions through boy language, and provides signals to other cats,

the tail is not an essential piece of anatomy for the domestic cat. You only have to ask people who keep bob-tailed cats to find out. The Japanese Bobtail and the American Bobtail are usually perfectly contented cats. However, does a domestic cat born without a tail have slightly different behavioral characteristics to a cat that has the full set of anatomical features? Does a cat without a tail feel a bit like a cat without a leg? We don’t know and no one writes about that.

Although the tail is non-essential for the domestic cat, particularly the full-time indoor cat, it is very much a working piece of anatomy and essential for certain wild cat species. It is the wild cat species that inform us as to what the domestic cat’s tail is for: balance.

Clouded leopard showing tail

Clouded leopard showing tail. Photo by MrGuilt

There are two classic examples. One lives in the trees; the clouded leopard, and the other lives in the high planes and rocky slopes of the mountains of Central Asia; the glorious snow leopard, which has to negotiate 40° slopes, routinely. Good balance for both these cats is required for survival.

Both these cats have the most awesome tails you are likely to see. They are very long; longer than the average domestic cat’s tail and considerably thick. I liken them to lengths of a ship’s anchor rope. You will see the snow leopard’s tail swish around as (s)he chases prey on treacherous terrain.

Snow leopard description

Notice the tail in the left hand image.

Of the small wild cat species, the margay is the master climber and tree dweller. This cat is monkey-like in the trees and his tail is the kind of tail you see on cats that need special help with balance.

Margay in tree showing tail

Margay in tree showing tail. Photo copyright Adriane Taylor.

Other examples of tree dwelling wild cats or cats that live in forests are the: leopard cat and ocelot.

How does a cat’s tail assist in keeping balance when negotiating a branch of a tree or a ledge of rock above a sheer drop? If the body has swayed to one side creating an imbalance, the tail will twist to the opposite side of the body to create a counterweight. The tail may also dip below the height of the body to provide an an equal and opposite torque on the body as in the fashion of the tight rope walker.

The domestic uses his or her tail when carrying out the self righting process in a fall. We know how clever cats are in landing on their feet. As to a form of body language, you will see the domestic cat’s tail-up-friendly-greeting. And the tail swish when hunting is a sign of uncertainty –  a physical expression of a mental imbalance. I think that is a nice point to stop.

Margay cat picture copyright Adriane Taylor.


  1. The Cat, Its Behavior, Nutrition & Health ISBN 978-0-8138-0031-9
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What is a cat’s tail for? — 3 Comments

  1. The cheetah uses its tail as a rudder when it’s running at top speed. I think that lions only use their tails for swatting flies. 🙂

    My aunt — the cat lady — had a clowder of large grey Manx. They seemed to be more or less down cats (floor cats). I wonder if that had something to do with their stubby tails. They still used those stubby thinks to express emotions.

    I think that domestic cats can survive with out their tails, but think about how they control their body temperature. They expose their stomachs to let out heat and the curl up on their sides and use the tail as needed to block or let in heat/cool is my observation. I could be wrong. I see pix of cats laying flat on nice and cool tile to help cool themselves off.
    Anyway… back on the subject.

    Wouldn’t the tail, if it was not needed, simply disappear over time? Is that why we have our bobtails, our manx, etc.? I think of the bobtail cats we have here in the Sonora desert. They are able to climb trees and rocky mountain sides. I don’t think they are runners as much as their Northern cousins the Lynx. More pouncers. Perhaps it is a geographical thing. Interested to see others thoughts.

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