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

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.

Editors' Recommendations

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…
When can kittens eat dry food? The lowdown on what you should feed them
Tips on feeding your new kitten
A tabby kitten standing in a bowl of kibble

Caring for kittens is hard work, but it's one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime. Not only are you responsible for the most adorable little lives, but you get to watch them grow and thrive! Preparing to keep them fed and happy, however, is a lot more work. 

Just like human babies have different nutritional needs than adults, kittens have different dietary requirements than adult cats. With few exceptions, your new feline fur baby is considered a kitten for the first year of life. (Large cat breeds like Norwegian forest cats and Maine Coon cats mature more slowly and don't reach adulthood until they're two years old.) Have you ever asked yourself, "When can kittens eat dry food?" We'll give you the full scoop on what you should feed your kittens — and when to change their diet.
Do kittens need wet and dry food? 

Read more
Why do cats lick themselves? It goes beyond just cat grooming
This totally normal behavior could mean a few different things
A cat licking his paw while lying in front of a blue background

Cats spend the majority of their time doing one of a few things: eating, resting, grooming, using the litter box, or causing havoc. Their routines can become predictable at times, so it's not even worth a second glance when you catch your cat licking themselves as obviously -- and loudly -- as possible. Cats groom themselves all the time, after all, but when does licking become a bit too much?
Even though cat grooming is completely normal, if it becomes noticeably excessive, your kitty may be licking themselves -- or even licking you -- for another reason. Luckily, we can help you understand why cats lick themselves and how you can tell what may be going on. Here's what you'll want to know and what to look out for.

Is my cat grooming? When licking is normal

Read more
Why do cats open their mouths when they smell? It’s for a really cool reason
The Flehmen response is a little-known reaction in felines that allows them to take in more of their surroundings
A white and tabby cat with their mouth open

Think of the last time you smelled something foul. How did you react? If you're truly made of steel, you may not have reacted at all, but for most people, it's impossible not to flare your nostrils at least. You may have even made a face! All of these reactions are perfectly natural, though humans aren't the only species that reacts to smells, both good and bad. Even your cuddly cat sniffs out the world around them sometimes,
If you've ever noticed your cat reacting to a smell, you're not alone. Some folks have even noticed their cat opening their mouth -- and even sticking out their tongue -- while smelling, but it's not so clear what this means. Is this a reaction to a scent, or is it just a way to get an extra thorough sniff? Whatever it may be, we're here to find out.
Needless to say, you're not alone if you're wondering, "Why do cats open their mouths when they smell?" We've scoured trusted sources to find out, and this is what we know.

Why do cats open their mouths when they smell?
Watching your curious cat open their mouth in a kind of sneer while they get a good sniff of something can raise a lot of questions -- it's understandable. When people do this, it's usually a response to an unpleasant smell, but when cats do this, they're actually trying to get a better understanding of the scent in the air.

Read more