Although cats can’t talk as we do, they can vocalise to communicate with us and with other cats. Purring, trilling, hissing and growling are all good examples. However, cats also use much more subtle ways to communicate with each other, such as posture and body language. They say that the eyes are the window to the soul, but a cat’s tail position is actually a very good way of divining what they are thinking and feeling! You may have seen your cat’s tail in action: upright and straight, tucked between their legs or lashing furiously. But what does it mean when a cat wags its tail?
Let’s consider some common tail positions and movements that cats use.
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What does a wagging tail mean?
For those of us familiar with dogs, a wagging tail may be instantly associated with positivity: play, affection and general joy. In cats, however, the situation may be more complex. Cats can wag their tails when feeling affectionate; but a feline tail swish is also likely to be a sign of pain or aggression. The clue is often in the detail: the height and speed of the wag is crucial!
1) A quivering tail
If a cat approaches you with tail held upright and quivering a little – relax! This is a sign of a happy cat who is pleased to see you. They may also rub their head or body against you, give a purr, chirp or trill and generally make you feel loved and welcome.
Cats may also quiver the tip of their tail when they are urine marking. This is usually performed backed up against a vertical surface and is associated with territorial messaging to other cats.
2) A swishing tail
A slowly swishing tail, paired with an intent focus and very still body, usually indicates that your cat is getting ready to pounce. Cats often engage in stalking, pouncing and other predatory behaviours in play as well as with genuine intent. Play has many benefits for pets, including for both physical health and mental wellbeing, so invest in some toys and get them playing chase!
3) A thrashing tail
Beware! A feline tail which is thrashing rapidly back and forth isn’t a good sign, and means your cat is feeling angry or afraid. It can be a precursor to aggression such as hissing, clawing or biting. It may be paired with other warning signs such as fluffed up hair, a tense crouched posture, pinned back ears and wide eyes. Your cat is asking for some space and quiet, so remove anything which may be upsetting them and give them some time to calm down.
4) A twitching tail tip
Observant owners may note that sometimes a cat may twitch just the very tip of their tail. You’ve probably seen this when your cat is concentrating hard on something they can see, such as a bird out of the window, and may go together with chirping or chattering noises. Occasionally, it can signal mild annoyance, so bear that in mind if you approach.
5) A low wagging tail
Cats with their tail held low to the ground are scared, anxious or in pain. It may flick or slowly wag, even when the cat is lying down. They may also tuck their tail between their legs. Other signs that your cat may be feeling unwell or in pain include changes to appetite, behaviour and activity levels.
Conversely, if your cat is lying down with their tail slowly swaying and thumping on the ground but they are relaxed or sleepy, this can be a sign of contentment, pleasure and affection. Check for half-lidded sleepy eye blinks and purring for confirmation that they are happy and relaxed.
It seems there is a cat tail position for every occasion! If your cat is wagging its tail, it could mean a plethora of things, depending on the type of wagging motion, the height of the tail and the speed of the motion. It’s useful to pay attention to other clues as well: consider body posture, eye and ear position and the situation your cat is facing or where their attention is focused on. Cats may not be able to talk, but they can clearly communicate their thoughts and feelings to us, if we’re paying attention to their signals. A wagging tail in cats is often a warning sign, so take care before you approach!