Does a cat’s tail have a mind of its own?

I am discussing the domestic cat’s tail. Having thought about this for the first time, I’ve decided that the positioning and movement of a cat’s tail is between a voluntary and an involuntary action. Therefore, it does not quite have a mind of its own but neither does the cat have direct control over it. Tail movements and positions occur in response to circumstances at certain times. This indicates that they are largely voluntary; driven by hormones.

Red tabby Maine Coon Dante with tail-up and flopped
Classic red Maine Coon, Dante, in snow with tail-up and flopped indicating friendly but unsure emotions towards the photographer. Photo by Wendy
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Involuntary movements

The question is asking whether a cat’s tail moves involuntarily. Involuntary movements are those that are not controlled by a person or animal. In people the cause is normally due to health problem of some sort such as a genetic disorder or a tumour.

Autonomic nervous system

However, both cats and people have an autonomic nervous system. This controls involuntary movements that happen all the time. The classic examples are the beating heart and breathing. These are automatic movements that take place 24/7. They are involuntary because the personal or animal is not telling the body to do these things. It’s entirely automatic and preset.

Reflecting cat’s mood

You have to understand what involuntary movement means before answering the question in the title. And it allows me to say that tails do not quite have a mind of their own. They reflect the mood of the cat. Tail positions are a part of a cat’s body language. The brain sends a signal to the tail to move and position in a certain way. It is a positive command it seems to me.


Once again, a classic tail movement and position is the “tail-up”. This is the friendly greeting. The cat wants to present a friendly signal to another cat or person that they are interacting with. The cat is not consciously ordering their tail to be in the up position so it’s not voluntary in that sense. The cat is in a friendly mood and the brain sends a signal to their tail to be erect to express that mood to the other cat. I would call that voluntary rather than involuntary.

Although, it seems to be a halfway house situation; betwixt and between voluntary and involuntary. To stress, it is not quite voluntary and neither is it involuntary.

Brush tail

The “brush-tail” happens when the cat is in a defensive mode and presenting to a hostile cat an enlarged size to give the impression to the hostile cat that they are dangerous. The cat presents sideways on, the back is arched and the fur is erect. This all enlarges the size of the cat. This, too, is driven by emotion and hormones and comes from a direct message from the brain in response to a particular circumstance.

Crab walk cat
Crab walk cat. I added the yellow lines to highlight the flattened ears, the heightened arched and fluffed tail. The flattened ears protects them the rest make her look larger.

Perhaps that is one of the keys to stating that tail positions and movements are not involuntary. They occur at certain times and not all the time (i.e. as directed by the autonomic nervous system).

Swishing tail movement

The swishing action of a cat’s tail from left to right, often along the ground, comes to my mind as one which is between voluntary and involuntary. It signals uncertainty.

Cat stalking and tail wagging
Cat stalking and tail wagging. The open ground does not provide cover for the cat which leads to indecision as to whether they should advance or not. This can result in tail wagging. Photo: in public domain with arrows added.

Some experts say that it signals anger but in my view that is incorrect. You’ll see it when a cat is uncertain about what to do because their mind is in balance between doing one thing and another. This might happen when a cat is deciding to catch prey across the backyard lawn. It is open territory and therefore the cat can’t hide behind something. They are uncertain whether to proceed or not. They watch the prey animal and swish their tail while they try and make up their mind.

Driven by hormones

But there’s no need for the cat to signal their uncertainty to any other creature. It is simply an expression of an uncertain mind through body language. This is as near as you might get to the tail having a mind of its own. But even then, it is receiving directions via the cat’s emotions. Therefore, the muscles of the tail are receiving a signal from the brain to move in a certain way. The signals are driven by the cat’s hormones, the signal for which comes from the pituitary gland at the base of the brain.

Tailless cats

The discussion above must tell us that cats without tails are at a disadvantage. Tail movements and positions serve a purpose. The same could be said about cats with folded ears. I am referring to the Scottish Fold. They, too, are at a slight disadvantage. And I have to mention the hairless cats. These are all cat breeds with an unusual appearance which attracts some people but the appearance comes with a disadvantage for the cat.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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