How do cats without tails balance?

A cat’s tail serves two main functions (1) to assist in balance particularly at times when balance is critical such as climbing trees to hunt and (2) a signal in feline body language when it takes up various positions such as ‘tail up‘ which signals a friendly approach. The small wild cat the margay has a long tail as this species of cat is a tree dweller. The most impressive feline tail in terms of length and thickness is the snow leopard’s. This cat relies on excellent balance when hunting blue sheep on 40% rocky outcrops in the Himalayas.

Tailless cat with good balance
Tailless cat with good balance. Picture in public domain (assumed).
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The tail is NOT a cat’s primary anatomy for balance. The primary organ for balance is the inner ear which consists of three ‘semicircular canals’. They are configured three-dimensionally and filled with a fluid which moves tiny hairs (cilia ) inside the canals when the cat moves. The movement of the hairs causes electrical signals to be sent to the brain where they are interpreted. The brain can decide the positioning of the cat’s body in three dimensions and send a return signal to the brain itself and the muscles if adjustments are need to be made for the cat to maintain balance.

If there is a bacterial infection in the inner ear or if it is diseased it can affect balance and cause vertigo. The brain receives misleading signals causing the head to ‘spin’. Vestibular disease causes a head tilt. The vestibular system is the umbrella term for the semi-circular canals and associated anatomy.

The lack of a tail as in Manx cats might affect body language signalling but it is minor deficiency. The biggest problem with tailless cats is not the lack of a tail but the anatomical defects created by the genetic mutation that causes taillessness. There can be significant health problems as shown in the table below:

Area of bodyDefect
Upper spine (towards head)Individual vertebra are slightly shortened
Lower part of spineDecrease in number and fusion of vertebra
Sacral BoneBadly developed
Pelvic Bonebadly developed
Spinal cordSome cases of Spina Bifida. This is a congenital defect of the spine due to a defective vertebra
BowelOccasional “bowel stoppage” due to a narrow anal opening. This is caused by the nerve supply being disrupted by the loss of the sacral cord segment2.
SpineSometimes terminates too short causing various problems such as hind leg paralysis.


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