“Tail Talk”: The Fascinating Language of Cats

The other day I was perusing a message boards in one of the cat communities to which I belong. I ran across a very strange question posed by an owner who was quite upset and concerned about his cat’s usual tail position.

He asked:

“My cat’s tail is always pointing straight up at the ceiling. All the cats I have ever owned always had their tails relaxed and pointed downwards. It’s annoying to me that my cat always has his tail up in the air because then I am forced to see his not-so-“butt”. Is there anything I can do to keep his tail pointing downwards?”

It simply amazes me that folks who have cats don’t understand tail “language”, thereby missing what their cats are communicating. If this person had been fluent in “tail” language” he would have been overjoyed to know that his kitty is happy, content, and telling him that “all is right with the world.”

Since using their tails is one of major ways that cats communicate with us (and other cats) I am positive that kitties would appreciate it greatly if their humans took the time and made an effort to understand them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all kitty guardians became fluent in the amazing language of the tail? If their guardians were fluent, they would be absolutely fascinated by all the interesting and even sometimes very important messages that their cats are conveying.

Understanding tail language is an essential part of kitty keeping. Being able to translate all the subtle and not so subtle nuances in the slightest motion of the tail is crucial in understanding cats. While a tail pointed up in the air is a very positive message, just a small droop on the tip of the tail can be translated as “I am happy, but something has me wondering”.

Tails carried downward generally means that cats are calm and relaxed, while a bristled tail tucked between the legs and held close to the body conveys anxiety, fear and/or submission. But watch out if a cat’s tail is humped and resembles a bottle- brush. This tail communication means the cat is extremely frightened and/or defensive and if the cat is feeling threatened he is getting into attack mode. And when the tail is bristled and is standing straight up or out behind, with the ears laid flat against the head; this is a cat who is ready to attack. Definitely give this frightened, angry kitty plenty of space.

Feline Tail Talk
Feline Tail Talk. Image in public domain – Correction the image by Sarah Hartwell of Messybeast.com (see her page).
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This said, our two Oriental kitties present an interesting exception to the usual meaning of a bristled tail. Apparently Sir Hubble Pinkerton and Dr. Hush Puppy‘s tail behavior is a genetic trait, because the breeder told me that it’s a common characteristic in her line.

When their tails starts bristling from the tip, rather than the base, with the bristle spreading downwards; this means our cats are ecstatically happy. So when we see this type of bushy tail, it makes us happy too!

What piques my interest is if the “rumpy” Manx and the Japanese Bobtail feel frustrated without the ability of using their tails to communicate.

What do you think? Tell us in a comment.


P.S. from Michael: The classic tail up greeting comes to mind. Perhaps this gentleman’s cat is just pleased to see him and demonstrates that with the tail up position.

31 thoughts on ““Tail Talk”: The Fascinating Language of Cats”

  1. well hes been playing around with Jasmin now so maybe its just some trauma will prob have to take him to get looked at. Also hes very matted around that area quick abit. He’s calmed down abit now. Been resting all day. So hopefully its nothing major.

  2. well im abit confused about my ozzie tail as its crooked. Im not sure if hes been in a fight. Hes very defensive. Anytime i go anywwhere near his tail or behind im told to go away. Ive talked to other people who think he may of been raped but im not sure. He jsut seems to be in too much pain. If hes no better by monday will prob have to take him to vet. Not really looking fwd to that.

    • I wonder if his tail has been broken? He may have been involved in an accident. As far as I am aware tails do not get broken in cat fights that often or hardly at all. Who knows? But it seems like he has gone through some sort of trauma and that his tail may have been broken in which case there may be some other hidden minor injuries but I do not want to scaremonger.


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