The Tail Speaks Louder than Words

We all wish we could be better cat communicators and know more precisely what our cats are thinking at any given time. Fortunately, we don’t need to be animal psychics to do this. We just need to be good observers. Watching the visual cues coming from the cat’s ears, whiskers, fur, and overall body positions will help us understand the inner workings of our animal companions. I’m going to offer a primer on tail positions and what clues they offer in terms of mood.

  • Upright, tip curled: This position represents neutrality, approachability, and inquisitiveness. This cat is relaxed and comfortable with his environment. The position looks a bit like a question mark.
  • Upright, fully erect: Otherwise known as the “hello flag” position. Used for us and for other cats as a means of introduction, usually followed by rubbing. This position relates back to kitten behavior – as kitties “parade” past mom, they get their tails out of the way to have their bottoms cleaned. Since this parade often happened in tandem with mom bringing home prey, you’ll often see this tail position, along with rubbing, at mealtime.
  • Erect, quivering: This is the position for spraying, with hind legs held tall. It’s also the position for “air spraying.” It’s not always easy to tell which is going on: some cats will air spray in areas where they are extremely unconfident, while others will quiver up against your leg, for instance, as an extremely loving sign.
  • Fluffed up, arched tail: With an arched back, cat is torn between offense and defense in what they perceive as a threatening situation. Watch out as you approach this cat! The balance can shift quickly as the tail straightens out.
  • Tail wrapped around the body while seated: What I’d call the “fireplace cat.” This kitty is content, and not going anywhere. This can depend on the situation, though. In a threatened cat, this is a defensive posture.
  • Tail between legs while standing: Just as you would assume with a dog, a highly fearful cat. In an unfamiliar situation (take the vet’s office, for instance), one might see the tip of their cat’s tail poking out near its chin. It’s a reflexive move to protect their most sensitive and vulnerable area, the tummy.
  • Tail flicking or wagging: Usually represents varying degrees of irritation. This is one of the best ways for you to be on guard for overstimulated responses from your cat. For instance, as you stroke your cat, you might notice slight flicking. The more you stroke, the more the flick graduates to a wag, and suddenly, “chomp!” your cat bites and runs across the room. A common misconception is that cats’ tails reflect the same emotional state as dogs. It is most definitely the opposite.

Of course, for every generalization about cat postures, there will come a flood of anecdotal evidence from clients and e-mails from subscribers telling us about the exceptions. For instance, one client tells me that her cat curls up every night in bed with her, and they begin a petting routine. During these 45 minutes, her cat becomes more and more sated, and her tail begins to wag more insistently as her eyes roll in back of her head and she sometimes drools. The bottom line here is to know the rules; then you can break them as you develop a deep individual bond with your pet.

Also, remember that kittens these days are spending less and less time with their moms and siblings. So very much of their social learning takes place in their first 12 weeks of life; but for a variety of reasons, we often see them on their own by 4–6 weeks. Because of this, communication skills like body postures are often not developed properly. They are not as “inherent” as one would think. A cat is born a cat, of course, but to a degree these communication skills must be honed, just like hunting. So, in short, this primer is just that; a way for you to begin looking at your cat a bit more deeply, while leaving other aspects of his or her world open to interpretation.

  1. Ryker's Boyz 'n' Allie   October 18, 2011 at 11:22 am  

    Yep! I can identify with the tail-wagging exception (though our gal doesn’t drool).

    Allie wags her tail side to side while sitting primly at my feet in the kitchen when she wants a treat. I swear she’s smirking at me and trying to look as innocent as possible, too. She reminds me of a little girl swishing her skirts!

    Of course, the cat sitter freaked when she first saw Allie doing this, for the very reason you mentioned. This kind of behavior is *not* the norm, and she was afraid Allie was about to launch herself at the nice stranger, who was just in the kitchen to grab the treat bag!

  2. Anita "Nadbugs" Schnee   October 18, 2011 at 11:37 am  

    Dear Jackson, I got interested in this a while back and dug out, from somewhere on the net, a cool chart about this (hope I’m not violating copyright — I try to be careful –) . . . . Here it is — plus yet more headbutts and tail-wraps in your direction; can’t have too many of those, right?:

    Your big fan, Nadbugs

    dear jackson, hey buddy anything you can do so’s this bean I’m stuck with might understand me better, i am so down for that. she needs help. so much help. your friend, bugs

  3. ej   October 19, 2011 at 4:18 am  


    You da bomb! I love your newsletter and the TV series, too. I’m really grateful to have you to show the way to good cat relationships! I adore my cat Orange Ruffy, and I want to give him the best life possible.

    A few years ago, Ruffy lost his cat companion. He seems quite content living with just his humans. He spends time with each of us, has games that he enjoys, and definitely seems to be happy and relaxed. But sometimes I wonder if he misses the company of another cat. I have been tempted to get him a kitten, but I’m getting on in years and I’m afraid the two of them might outlive me. Do cats really need other cats?

  4. Nancy Hori w/"Bongo"   October 20, 2011 at 7:39 pm  

    Hi Jackson, I know you must be over-whelmed and so busy from the time you wake up til the time you crash, and Im talkin’ bout “every” night! But I still have one question for you (no pressure-just wondering?) Will you be continuing your question and Answer sessions? Wasn’t vol 4 your last back in August? I really enjoyed those. I had alot of questions answered without even having to ask you! You are really a “chrismatic” (I hope I spelled that correctly even though it doesn’t look right! You know the word I am trying to say!) and “dynamic” person especially when it comes to speaking and communicating with people. And Im sure that even “if” you made no sense at all, you would still have a crowd of people around you listening! (and by the way, you make great sense, great “cat” sense! I was just giving an example!!) Just take some deep breaths if the going gets too much on those hectic days! It usually helps!

  5. AnnaKW   October 21, 2011 at 9:59 am  

    I just caught half of an episode of My Cat from Hell and I immediately had to google you;)

    I’m a small animal vet who loves cats and I deal with scared cats and cats with behavioral problems every day. I just wanted to write you a “fan comment” since I was hugely impressed with you manner towards the cat on the show. I rarely see someone who really gets cats like you do. I despair sometimes over owners who misunderstand their cats so completely and it was nice to see someone who truly understands! I recognized your cat charming tricks:) I use them at the clinic every day and often the scared cat comes and curls up in my arms instead of in the owners’…

    I also admire your ways of communicating the cats’ needs to the owners. I really know how hard that can be, and how difficult it is to explain to people who don’t have the knack how to acquire it.

    Keep up the good work!

Comments are closed.

We regret that Jackson does not answer questions posted in the comments. This is due to his demanding schedule and the high volume of requests he receives. But most importantly, since he has not met your cat, it would be contrary to his approach for him to give specific personalized advice for your specific situation. That being said, general questions and issues are addressed throughout this blog, in his book Cat Daddy and of course, the show My Cat From Hell.