Last updated: January 19, 2017
I wish I had a tail. Don’t you think it would be absolutely wonderful to be able to swish it from side to side, point it up in the air, tuck it between your legs or even wrap it round your best friend and cuddle up! I wish I could make rude gestures with it, actually! A cat has the most amazing tail. Flexible and mobile, it’s a very important part of its anatomy. I mean, can you imagine a cat without one? Wouldn’t be a cat, would it? But you never see a motionless tail – so why do cats’ tails twitch? Let’s find out!
Anatomy of a Cat’s Tail
If you contrast a cat’s tail with a dog’s, you’ll see that they are two quite different animals (ha-ha!) dogs’ tails are very expressive, but they are infinitely less able to do the kind of gymnastics a cat’s tail can. A cat can express itself so well because of the way that its tail is made. It’s a masterpiece of biological engineering. A tail is an extension of the spine, and the number of vertebrae in it accounts for 10% of the total number of bones in the cat’s body. The tail has between 19 and 23 vertebrae, all held together by a network of muscles, tendons and ligaments. Its length ranges between 9.9 and 11 inches. It’s used for all sorts of things; balance, communication, and sometimes even keeping itself warm!
What a Cat’s Tail Says
Cats tails tell us many things, so let’s look at a few of them, but remember that cats are quirky, feisty, independent little beasts, so your cat may have its own variations on these – so you just have to work those out for yourself! These are the guidelines:
Generally this means: “I’m absolutely incandescent with rage,” particularly when accompanied by laid back ears, bared fangs and hissing. The best thing to do when you see this is to back off and let him get over it!
Tail Between the Legs
I’m sure you know what this means! This is a posture that has ‘don’t hurt me’ written all over it! Poor kitty is trying to make himself as small as possible so that a bigger, more dominant, or more aggressive cat will see him as less of a threat. It can also mean that he just wants to be by himself since he’s upset about something. You know how tender their little feelings are!
Tails Straight Up
Hello! I’m so glad to see you! You’re looking well! Is it OK if we hang out together for a while? By the way, I’m feeling fabulous – thank you very much for asking. Tails straight up communicate confidence and a feeling of relaxation and happiness.
The Tail Wrap
You’re mine and I never want you to leave me! Cats do this to humans and other cats as a way of expressing love. They are literally saying: “stay with me!” My cat has never done this to me, but I wish he would!
Whoa! Don’t even go there! When a cat’s tail bristles and puffs out and the hairs on his back stand up this means that he’s ready for a fight or to defend himself. Hair standing on end makes him look bigger and more threatening to a potential aggressor, just the opposite of the tail-between-the-legs pose.
This can mean two things. It can signify that Kitty is absolutely THRILLED to see you, especially if he’s dancing on his back feet. It can also mean that he is marking territory and spraying. It’s really very funny and cute! When he greets you like this there is no spraying, but when he’s marking his territory there is, and the only way to stop this is by neutering. Tom cats have an instinct to spray, and all of them do, but only cats who have not been neutered really stink! One more good argument for sterilization!
Lots of cats actually use their tails as socks and scarves. This really is true! If you look at cats in cold climes they will often wrap their tails around their feet to keep their tootsies warm, and if they’re lying down they can even make themselves warm scarves for their necks, or tuck their noses underneath them to keep Jack Frost away!
Have you ever noticed your cat twitching when he’s asleep? He may even chatter or whine a bit. This only lasts for six or seven minutes and corresponds to our REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, which is when we dream. Cats dream too, and they are SO cute to watch! A word of warning – if you see any signs of his body stiffening, it may be a sign of seizures, so vet-wards you go!
So why do cats’ tails twitch? Twitching can mean a lot of things. If the cat is crouched like a coiled spring and the tail is being held low and straight but twitches at the tip it can be a prelude to a cat pouncing, meaning that the cat has a bird or mouse in its cross hairs. This is intensely focused hunting behavior. Rapid tail twitching means aggression, and if it gets to the point of actually swinging from side to side in a semi-circular motion, he is giving a warning – so just back off for safety’s sake! You don’t want to get on the business end of those fangs!
If the cat’s tail is twitching at the tip but otherwise standing straight up means that the cat is feeling friendly and interested – sometimes!
Sometimes it can mean uncertainty, and thoughtfulness – should I go outside and chase those birds or head downstairs for some tuna or should I just stay here and have a long, satisfying nap?
Sometimes it can even be a sign of illness. Twitching can be a sign of feline hyperesthesia syndrome, a disease particularly associated with older cats. Symptoms of this condition are incontinence, over-grooming and scratching more than usual. If you’re not certain, it’s best to reassure yourself by taking kitty to the vet as soon as possible.
Mother Nature has designed a cat to be the perfect predator. So next time you look at your little feline pal, just think about that cute tail’s ability to balance that little cuddly body with its great big predator’s fangs. And then think about that lovely little affectionate face and its twitchy tail. How can you doubt that he loves you?