Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails?

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Have you ever seen your cat wagging her tail and wondered why? Or perhaps you thought cats only move their tails when they are angry, but you’ve noticed your cat does it in many different situations, and you don’t know why?

In this article, we will consider the different ways your cat may use her tail to communicate and what the position of her tail may mean.

The Importance Of Cat Body Language

Cats are highly complex creatures, and our understanding of their behavior, while improving thanks to dedicated behaviorists and veterinarians actively researching it, is still incomplete. Any cat owner needs to remember that cats are not tiny humans, and their behavior is very different from ours.

Also Read: 5 Easy Tricks to Teach Your Cat According to a Cat Behaviorist

Assuming your cat will enjoy something, just because you do, or not understanding what your cat’s behavior is trying to tell you can lead to frustration or fear developing in your cat. In the long term, this can lead to severe behavioral issues that can be very hard to correct.

Cat tail language is just one of those ways of communicating. Taking time to research and understand cat behavior, and being guided by your cat’s cues rather than trying to enforce situations that may make your cat uncomfortable, is the key to a happy, healthy kitty at home!

Why Does My Cat Wag Her Tail?

what does it mean when cats wag their tail

To decode why your cat is wagging their tail, take a look at some of their other body language.

If your cat is wagging their tail, it can mean many different things. It is essential to consider your cat’s situation, how your cat is wagging their tail, and what they are doing with the rest of their body to best interpret the behavior. Below are a few examples of what your cat might be feeling.

Unhappy

When a cat is unhappy or angry, they may hold their tail low and flick it quickly back and forth. This behavior is often seen when a cat is in a situation they aren’t pleased about. It is best to give cats space when they are showing this behavior, as an angry cat can quickly become aggressive if they feel their boundaries are not being respected.

Annoyed

Usually, when annoyed, cats will move their tail in a slow swish back and forth. Sometimes they may just twitch the end a little like a rattlesnake tail. It is best to give cats space when they are doing this to avoid them becoming angry or aggressive.

Frustrated

cat fight

When frustrated, a cat may thrash its tail in all directions. Frustration can be seen in caged cats or those that can see another cat in their territory (such as the garden) but can’t get to them.

In Pain

Cats that are in pain might bite, even if they are usually very docile.

Some cats will wag or flick their tails as a sign of pain or discomfort. You may notice this more when your cat is lying down. Your cat may show other signs of feeling unwell at home, such as reduced appetite, increased or decreased thirst, or hiding away more than usual.

If you think your cat may be wagging their tail because something is wrong, it is vital to contact your veterinary clinic to arrange a consultation as soon as possible. If you’re unsure if there’s a problem, the best plan is to chat to your vet, who can put your mind at ease.

Happy

A happy cat will usually approach you with their tail straight up or in an upright question mark. As your cat sleeps comfortably, they will often wrap their tail around their body. Some cats will wag their tail when happy; an example would be a friendly tail quiver as your cat greets you.

Scared

A frightened cat may hold their tail low and wag it. They may also hide their tail by tucking it away or puffing up their fur. Other signs of fear include pinning back her ears, a low crouch, or vocalization such as hissing or growling.

Excitement

Excited Happy Cat-unsplash-compressed

A very excited cat may have a tail twitch. This behavior may be accompanied by teeth chattering or chirping and can be seen when a cat views a prey animal through a window. This behavior can, however, also reflect frustration that they cannot get to the prey creature.

If a cat is simply concentrating intently on the prey item, they may also move their tail in short, quick twitches, which can be seen in playful cats, too.

Also Read: Why Do Cats Chase Their Tails?

During Sleep

Cats that twitch their tail during a nap may be doing so as a sign of contentment or associated with dreaming.

What Other Things Is Your Cats Tail Telling You?

Even when not it’s moving, a cat’s tail can tell you a lot about how they are feeling.

High Straight Tail

Generally, a high straight tail is a friendly sign of greeting in cats. I affectionately term it “happy tail” when my cats welcome me like this.

Question Mark Tail

If your cat’s tail resembles a question mark when they greet you, this is another friendly communication gesture.

Puffed Up Tail

If your feline friend has puffed up all the fur on her tail, this is usually a sign she feels threatened. By fluffing up her tail, she looks bigger and scarier to whatever threatens her. She may also start hissing to say, “keep away.” Cat’s showing this body language may become aggressive, so do not startle them or attempt to handle them if possible.

Low Tail

A cat holding their tail low to their body can reflect anxiety, fear, or stress.

Tucked Tail

If your cat is tucking their tail tightly under their body, they are likely frightened or anxious about their current situation.

Tail Hug

When your cat wraps their tail around you while rubbing against your legs, they are showing you that they love you. A wrapping tail is a sign of affection between socially bonded cats.

Floppy Tail

If your cat has a floppy tail that is hanging limply, this can be a sign of an injury. In cats, this is often a tail pull injury, where the tail has been pulled back from the body. It can happen for many reasons, but severe cases can lead to permanent nerve damage, requiring tail amputation.

Sometimes the nerves affecting the bowel and bladder can be affected too. If you notice your cat’s tail is limp or floppy, your cat should be seen urgently by your local veterinarian.

Also Read: 10 Reasons Why Cats Put Toys In Food Or Water Bowls

Final Thoughts

Can you believe that one tail can tell you so many different things about your cat’s emotions? Remember that every cat is different, and some will be more expressive than others when it comes to tail communication.

You know your cat better than anyone, so take their tail cues in the context of the situation and their mood to best understand how your cat is trying to communicate with you!

Also Read: How To Have A Better Relationship With Your Cat

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do cats wag their tails while lying down?

Your cat's tail communicates a whole host of different emotions! When your cat is lying down and wagging their tail, it may mean they are content, but it also can mean they are stressed, worried, frightened, frustrated, or even in pain.

It is essential to look at your cat's entire body language and the environment around them to work out what they are feeling! It is vital to consider if your cat has been showing any signs of illness at home, such as reduced appetite, drinking more than usual, or hiding away.

If this is the case, your cat's tail wagging while lying down may mean there is a problem, and you should arrange a trip to your veterinary clinic as soon as possible.

Are cats happy when they wag their tails?

Unlike dogs, a wagging cat tail is usually not a sign of happiness, although some cats will wag their tails when content. Cats use their tails as a vital means of communicating their feelings.

It is essential to look at how your cat is wagging their tail and the context of their environment to give clues to better understand what your cat is trying to communicate to you.

Do cats wag their tails when mad?

Yes. When a cat is wagging their tail, it can signify anger. It is, however, not the only reason they will tail wag so take into account the rest of their body language and their current environment to get a better idea of how they are feeling.

Why does my cat wag his tail when I pet him?

When you are petting your furry friend, you may notice them start to wag their tail. Usually, this will be a flick or twitch, but sometime the whole tail may wag too. Cats do this while being petted for several reasons, including feeling content and secure but also feeling frustrated or annoyed.

If your cat is purring and maybe kneading you, then they are likely content. Keep an eye for shifts in body language as cats can quickly decide they are done with petting and will sometime bite or scratch. Relying on a tail wag alone may not give you a good heads up that your cat doesn't want to be pet anymore!

View Sources

Ellis. S (2018) Recongnising and assessing feline emotions during the consultation: History, body language and behaviour. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. DOI https://doi.org/10.1177/1098612X18771206 Retrieved July 18th 2022

Horwitz. D and Rodan. I (2018) Behavioral awareness in the feline consultation: Understanding physical and emotional health. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. DOI https://doi.org/10.1177/1098612X18771204 Retrieved July 18th 2022

Merola. I and Mills. D (2015) Systematic review of the behavioural assessment of pain in cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1098612X15578725  Retrieved July 18th 2022.

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About Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, MRCVS

Dr. Joanna Woodnutt (MRCVS) is a small animal veterinarian and writer who is passionate about helping owners to learn more about their pets in order to improve animal welfare. She loves to write and wants to empower owners to make the best decisions for their pets by giving them all the information they need. In her spare time, she takes consultations on the small island of Guernsey.

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