Skip to main content

How to decipher your cat’s tail language

Cats may not speak with words, but they have many other ways to communicate just what they’re feeling. One way is with cat tail language. How your cat is holding his tail says a lot about whether he’s comfortable, on edge, or asking you to back off and give him some space. Learning to read cat tail body language can help you better understand your cat so you can respect his wishes and take steps to keep him comfortable. It may take a little practice at first, but if you watch your cat carefully, you should be able to see some of these tail signs.

Cat standing outside with a curled tail
aloiswohlfahrt / Pixabay

Tail movement meanings

How your cat moves his tail has an important meaning. A tail that’s moving back and forth slowly means that your cat is relaxed, while a more intense flicking means your cat is focused and may be getting ready to pounce on something, like a toy. If your cat is holding his tail out and is quickly flicking or lashing it about, then he’s showing you that he’s upset.

When you’re spending time with your cat on the couch, his tail will be mostly quiet, save for the occasional flick or twitch. If your cat suddenly starts to twitch his tail repeatedly, he’s telling you that he’s had enough petting and he’d like to be left alone.

Your cat may also walk up to you, slowly waving his tail about, and then wind it around your legs. This is his way of demonstrating affection and showing that he’s bonded to you.

Tail position meanings

How your cat holds his tail can convey messages, too.

  • When your cat holds his tail up and stretches it out, he’s showing that he’s happy and confident. You may notice this when your cat is playing or just strolling through the house.
  • Your cat may also hold his tail out while curling up just the tip of it, so his tail resembles a question mark. Often, this is another indicator of happiness, so you should feel welcome to approach your cat and greet him with some pats.
  • If your cat is holding his tail straight down so that it’s pointing toward the ground and is carried beneath the level of his back, he’s showing that he’s upset and agitated, and he needs to be left alone.
  • Similarly, if your cat wraps his tail around his body, he’s nervous and trying to show that he’s submissive.
  • When your cat is frightened, he might puff up all the hair on his tail. This is often accompanied by an arched back.
  • Alternatively, your cat might whip his tail back and forth, or pair this motion with his puffed tail. If you see any of these signs, your cat should be left alone and given some time to calm down.
Orange and white cat curled up
Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay

Other cat body language to watch

It’s important to observe your cat’s tail language in context of his other body language. While these tail postures and movements can provide some guidance to how your cat may be feeling, your cat can vary the signals that he’s sending with his tail. So, rather than just watching his tail, look at the entire picture that your cat is giving you.

Cats can communicate with their entire bodies. A tense, crouched posture can indicate your cat is uncomfortable. A more relaxed, stretched-out posture or a relaxed, strolling walk means your cat is happy and comfortable in his surroundings. Watch your cat’s eyes and face for signs of tension, and then see if his tail activity matches those signals.

Learning to read your cat’s body language takes time, but it’s an important part of sharing your life with a cat. Cats are highly reliable in how they communicate with their bodies, so if you can learn to read when your cat is getting tense or is done with being petted, you can avoid making him uncomfortable and feeling like he needs to hiss at you. As you get better at reading your cat’s body language, you’ll be able to give him what he needs, whether that’s attention or some space and a break from socializing for a while. This is the foundation to having a better relationship with your cat and giving him a home where he’s supported and understood.

Paige Cerulli
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Paige's work has appeared in American Veterinarian, Business Insider, Healthline, and more. When she's not writing, Paige…
Why do cats have whiskers? The answer is more in-depth than you think
Cat whiskers serve many purposes on top of cuteness
Sokoke cat on a gray background

If you already love cats, then you'll be one of the first to tell everyone you know how cute they are. From their bright eyes and adorable ears to their whiskers and expressive tails, cats are undoubtedly one of the most precious creatures to walk the planet. But did you know there's actually a scientific reason we think cats are cute?

In fact, science can explain just about everything these days, including one of life's greatest cat-related mysteries. A cat's whiskers are one of its defining characteristics, but have you ever wondered, "Why do cats have whiskers?" We're here to give you the full scoop. 
What are whiskers?

Read more
7 big cat breeds that make great pets
Big cats are almost a totally different animal and will change your pet-owning experience
Maine Coon cat lying on bed

Everyone knows about dog breeds, but some first-time cat owners might not realize that felines have unique breeds, too. Many of the cats you've seen are probably domestic shorthair, by far the most common variety. However, every now and then, you might stumble on a cat that looks extra large and wonder what's different about him. Tt turns out, they could be an entirely unique kind of cat.

While big cats can require some specialized care, they also come along with outsized personalities to match. If you're looking for more cat to love, try out one of these big cat breeds.
What are the most popular large cat breeds?

Read more
7 cool things you might not know about orange cats
Fun facts to help you see orange cats in a new way
An orange cat with green eyes looks up

No one hates Mondays or loves lasagna more than Garfield. The famous fictional feline has been gracing comic strips and TV screens for decades, and it's no wonder why orange cats have a bit of a reputation. In reality, though, most orange cats aren't as lazy or moody as Jon Arbuckle's beloved pet. If you thought you knew everything there is to know about orange cats -- think again.
These cool facts about orange cats will have you smiling, giggling, and even scratching your head!

1. Orange cats have mysterious ancestral origins

Read more