I’ve just bumped into another reason why a domestic cat might attack their own tail. We see a lot of this but it is normally in play. It’s just chasing their tail but if they end up biting their tail hard and even, God forbid, going further and biting off the tip of their tail, something is wrong. There are a number of reasons why cats bite their tail, one is play, as mentioned and another is trying to alleviate pain but, in this instance, I want to recite a story about a diagnosis of redirected aggression.
A cat in a shelter was apparently behaving bizarrely by spinning around constantly and biting their tail. Clearly there was a degree of aggression which was beyond play and they remarked that it was almost as if the cat was seeing ghosts and had gone crazy.
A cat behaviourist who is featured on the Metro.co.uk website in a story about training to be an animal behaviourist, Nicky Trevorrow, decided that there were no medical reasons for this behaviour but that the cat disliked seeing other cats and would become frustrated which prompted the cat’s aggression to be redirected towards their tail.
They put a plan in place and moved the cat away from the cat that was bothering them. And as part of the plan, they gave the cat places to hide, more mental stimulation and better-quality food combined with more interesting ways to hunt down the food as another way of stimulating interest.
I had never heard of redirected aggression causing tail biting before and therefore I was immediately drawn to the argument and wanted to spread the word in this article.
For the sake of clarity, “redirected aggression” occurs when a domestic cat wants to be aggressive against another cat or animal but circumstances prevent it and therefore, they redirect their desire to be aggressive against another object or animal or indeed a person. The classic scenario is the full-time indoor cat seeing an ‘invading’ cat outside on what they feel is their territory. They might redirect their attack at their owner or another cat or dog in the household but in this instance, it was themselves, specifically their tail. It does seem that sometimes domestic cats do not perceive their tail as part of their anatomy! This allows them to play with it is if it is disconnected from them and being waved around by a person. It actually prompts us to think of the self-awareness argument. Are cats self-aware? If they were self-aware, they’d understand that it was their tail and not harm themselves.
People redirect aggression too; example: punching an object in anger.
P.S. There was a discussion some time ago about the reasons behind snow leopards putting their tails in their mouths. Some people thought that it was to keep their mouth or face warm but I thought that that argument was fanciful. My reasoning was that they were simply playing with their tail as you often see cubs doing or it was simply a matter of comfort for the adult snow leopards concerned. We do see other wild cat species playing with tails particularly cubs playing with their parents’ tails.