Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails & What Does Their Tail Position Mean?

Posted by Dr. Roth on

cat on fence wagging tail for balance

Cats don’t wag their tails for the same reasons dogs do. Cats use their tails for balance and communication much more than dogs. If a cat is waving their tail back and forth, it will mean something different depending on the speed and angle. Here’s how to read a cat’s body language and translate what their tail-wagging might mean.

Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails?

Cat behavior is easy to interpret with a little attention. If a cat is wagging their tail, they’re trying to communicate. There are three main “wagging” motions a cat may make.

  • A slow and low swishing motion is a sign the cat is slightly annoyed. Anyone playing or petting a cat when they start swishing their tail should follow the best cat advice and give them some space.
  • A low, quick back-and-forth “flick” is a sign the cat is very annoyed and unhappy. This is a sign that they may start to defend themselves soon, so pet parents should stop what they’re doing and let the cat hide if they want. If the cat needs to take a pill or have their nails trimmed, it’s best to let them calm down and try again later.
  • A rapid swishing motion can mean a cat is happy, playful, mentally stimulated and probably about to pounce on something. If the cat is staring at a toy or another cat and swishing their tail, they’re about to jump and start playing, which is great exercise.

A cat’s tail can communicate other emotions, too. Here are some of the most common cat tail behaviors that offer pet parents clues about what their cat is feeling.

Fluffed and Flared Cat Tail

This is the most well-known type of cat body language. If a cat’s tail puffs up and arches over their back, they’re trying to make themselves look bigger. Cats do this when they’re scared and trying to convince the scary thing to go away. The cat may also hiss and angle their body sideways to look as large as possible.

Low and Tucked Cat Tail

Another sign that a cat is scared is a low, tucked tail. If a cat is nervous and doesn’t feel like they can get away, they’ll crouch close to the ground and tuck their tail around their body or between their legs. They may also pin their ears back close to their head.

Hooked Cat Tail

Some very affectionate cats will give their favorite people a “hug” by hooking their tail against or around their hand, arm, or neck. This will usually happen when the cat is rubbing up against someone or while they're being petted. Not every cat does this, so pet parents shouldn’t worry if their cat just purrs instead.

cat showing affection with hooked tail

Twitching Cat Tail

The cat’s tail may twitch in a couple of situations. Twitching while a cat is asleep means they may be dreaming. When this type of movement is present, it’s a sign the cat trusts their surroundings enough to fall deeply asleep.

If the cat is awake and just the tip of the tail is twitching, they’re interested in something. If a cat is watching a bird, for example, their tail may twitch back and forth. This can quickly evolve into the quick swish that means they’re about to pounce.

Body Language Is Key to Cat Behavior and Training

‌Paying attention to the behavior of a cat is a great way for pet parents to understand how their kitty feels and what they're trying to communicate. Keeping an eye on their tail is one of the best ways to learn more about cat behavior and training. Reading what their tail is saying is an easy way to keep a cat healthy and happy.

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