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.