Why does my cat wag its tail?

June 21, 2022

A cat will often use its tail to convey emotions—swishing it from side to side or thumping it on the ground. Indeed, each wag may indicate a different mood, reports Newsweek.

It’s important to pay attention to what your cat’s tail is doing, along with the rest of its body language, animal behaviorist Zazie Todd recently told the magazine.

“If it’s only a small movement, and if it only involves the tip of the tail, most likely it’s just telling you that the cat is paying attention. If it’s a bigger, wider swish, then it’s most likely a distance-increasing signal—the cat would like more distance between [itself] and you.”

 Cats also have a “distance-decreasing signal,” said Todd, the author of “Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy” (Greystone Books, May 2022).

“There’s a lovely signal where they have the tail straight up, often with a little hook in it, at the top. This is a distance-decreasing signal—a sign that happens between friends, whether that friend is another cat or a person.”

What’s more, different cats use signals differently. In a recent interview, Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, medical director of Bond Vet in New York City, informed Newsweek that some swish their tail back and forth when they’re excited, while others do it when they’re unhappy.

“This could mean they are stalking prey or a toy, or maybe they are just watching a bird outside the window. In other cases, a cat indicates that they are annoyed or that they dislike something that is happening by swishing their tail,” she said.

Below, Vicki Jo Harrison, president of the International Cat Association, sets out her guide for interpreting tail wags and body language cues:

  • Low wagging tail: “A cat wagging its tail low is generally an indicator that scared or anxious,” according to Harrison, who adds. “The low wag may be accompanied with pinned-back ears and the cat’s body crouched low to the ground.”
  • Low wag, tail tucked between legs or wrapped around body: “If your cat’s tail is tucked between its legs, this indicates that it is really scared or may be experiencing pain. When you see this, end your interaction with your cat and ensure that your cat’s environment is free of stressors. (Note: If your cat crouches with their tail curled tightly around their body for more than a few days, then an evaluation by your veterinarian is warranted to rule out pain or illness.)
  • Slow or quick swish: “When your cat slowly swishes its tail from side to side, it may be intently focused on something like a toy or another animal. If its tail begins to swish quickly from side to side, it [may indicate that your cat is] feeling playful and ready to pounce. The quick swishing tail may be coupled with dilated pupils and forward pointed ears.”
  • Quick twitch: “If you notice your cat’s tail doing a short, quick twitch, it usually indicates they he or she is concentrating, hunting, playing, or mildly irritated. Cats typically display this language when they are window-watching a small animal or bird. The wagging is often accompanied by chirping or chattering.”
  • Quivering tail: “A tail quiver means they’re especially excited to see you or another cat. Your cat will approach you with their tail high up in the air and the tip will do a little quivering movement, similar to how a rattlesnake shakes its tail.”
  • Thrashing or thumping: “When your cat thrashes its tail it usually is annoyed or angry. If you’re petting your cat and [he or she starts] thrashing the tail, [he or she is] trying to tell you to stop. If you don’t, the thrashing tail may be a prelude to hissing, growling, swatting, or biting.”
  • Wrapping tail around owner: “When your cat wants to show you affection, he or she may wrap the tail around your hand, arm, or even neck.”
  • Fluffed-up tail: “The classic Halloween pose of a puffed tail and arched back indicates [that your cat is] startled, frightened, or in danger. This is a defensive reaction indicating that your cat wishes to be left alone. They generally do this during a confrontation. They are known to fluff up to try and make themselves look larger and scarier to a predator, which is why he or she will arch their back too.”
  • Waving tail while lying down: “Sometimes a cat wagging its tail may indicate that he or she is in pain or feeling unwell. If your cat’s lying down and waving its tail while also not behaving normally—like not eating or hiding—they should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.”
  • Standing straight up: “When a cat’s tail is upright, it is feeling social and confident, and approaching in a friendly manner. If your cat approaches you with its tail up, this is a good time to pet or play with them.”
  • Question mark shape: Finally, our expert says, “A tail that looks like a question mark—it stands upright and curls at the end— indicates that your cat is happy. This is an invitation to interact with your cat.”

Research contact: @Newsweek