Essentially, domestic cats use their tail as a means of communication and its position conveys their emotions and intentions. A domestic cat holds their tail vertically – called the “tail-up” position – when greeting a friendly cat. They’ll do the same when greeting their owner. It’s a sign of relaxed confidence in the encounter. And this might and probably does often just precede the moment when the caregiver pets their cat. It might typically happen when a cat greets their owner when they return home. The tail-up greeting will carry over into petting which is part of the mutual greeting behaviours of human and domestic cat.
My cat has his tail up whenever he walks around our home indicating relaxed confidence. Sometimes his tail is held horizontally or not in the vertical position when he is occupied with hunting. This doesn’t mean that he is anxious or fearful. It just means that he’s focusing on something else and is not demonstrating a friendly approach.
On the other hand, when a cat’s tail is down or even tucked between their legs, it can indicate stress, anxiety and fear. The intention here is to make the cat look smaller and less noticeable as a defensive response to a perceived threat.
There is another reason why a tail might suddenly be in the vertical position when petted. It is not to do with greeting but to do, according to Dr. Desmond Morris, with their mother licking their behind to make them defecate. This applies to newborn kittens. When their mother licks their newborn, they may raise their backsides in the expectation of being licked there as an automatic response to facilitate defecation in those early days. See link below.
And the automatic, instinctive response continues into adulthood when the owner strokes their cat’s back. It may not always happen but it should happen quite a lot and I would challenge anybody who reads this to test it out on their cat. Stroke your cat’s back towards their tail or pet/gently pat them there and the cat might push up with their hind legs and raise their tail vertically.
There are other positions which I will briefly cover below:
- The tail curves gently down and then up again at the tip which indicates a relaxed cat.
- The tail is raised slightly and softly curved which can indicate that the cat is becoming interested in something nearby.
- If the tail is held erect with the tip titled over the cat is in friendly mood and interested with reservations.
- The tail wagging from side to side is indicative of a state of mental conflict when the cat was a do one thing then decides against it. You will see this when a cat wants to chase prey through an open area. They have the urge to attack but are fearful about been exposed because there is no cover. It will indicate also irritation which is part of the same emotion.
- The tail is held still with the tip twitching. This is a version of tail-wagging indicating mild irritation. If the tip-twitching becomes more powerful it might indicate that the cat is in a bad mood and a swipe might be imminent.
- When a tail almost vibrates very rapidly, it’s a sign that the cat is excited and experiencing an expectation that something good is about to happen. This is a quivering tail held erect. It is also seen when cats spray urine horizontally to mark territory. Dr. Desmond Morris says that “the gesture appears to have the meaning of a friendly ‘personal identification’ as if the cat is saying, ‘Yes, this is me!'”
- When the tail is arched and bristled, we know that it means the cat is in a defensive mode and may attack if they are provoked. It makes them look bigger. We see this a lot, particularly in kittens who are practising their defensive mode behaviour. Sometimes they do it in response to an image of themselves in a mirror or their shadow on a wall. It’s a form of play for a kitten.
- Your see a modified version of the above when and if a cat sees another cat on their territory. The tail is not held high but it becomes bristled and raised slightly. It’s in preparation for a full defensive mode and fighting situation.
- Finally, when a female cat holds her tail to one side it is a sexual invitation signal given when she is on heat. The tomcat knows that he can then mount her without being attacked.
When interpreting a cat’s tail positions and characteristics you obviously have to put what you see into context and observe other behavioural cues. And each cat is an individual resulting in tail positions which might vary under different circumstances.
A caregiver can understand their cat better when able to read feline body language. The tail position is quite a major part of feline body language.
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