by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
The tail is an important part of the cat; apart from being a beautiful extension it is used for balance and communication. The tail is an extension of the spine; it has between 19 and 23 vertebrae and an extensive range of muscles, ligaments, nerves and tendons which allow for its sensitivity and immense flexibility.
Although the tail is used to express feelings and mood it’s messages must be read in conjunction with other signals the cat is expressing. The ears, eyes, whiskers and general body posture must be taken into account along with the tail signals to interpret the message correctly.
A moving tail signals arousal, either excitement, curiosity, fear, frustration or aggression. The degree of movement indicates the level of arousal; other signals will help to identify the type of arousal. A relaxed cat gently flicking the end of a soft tail while watching activity around her is a sign of interest while the same flicking movement of a stressed cat with flattened ears and a rigid tail is a warning signal. The faster and harder the movement the more the arousal level.
When the tail is held level with the body it indicates the cat in a neutral state, neither overly friendly nor fearful. Dropping the tail towards the ground is an indication of concern.
An upright tail on a cat coming to greet you is a happy message. The domestic cat is the only species of cat that can hold its tail vertically while walking. A small ‘hook’ at the top of the tail often indicates extra pleasure , and the tail can also wave slightly out of happiness. The same upright position with fur fluffed out and a tense stance with arched back is a defensive message to keep others away. Another circumstance with the tail in an upright position is when they are spraying against an upright object – both males and females can spray. Here the tail will seem to shudder as the spray is released.
When the tail is tucked under the back legs it indicates a fearful cat – unless the cat is curled up contentedly or keeping warm.
Cats use their tails to ‘talk’ to other cats and other species. Cats with short, broken, amputated or deformed tails can therefore unintentionally send the incorrect message to others, resulting in a mis-communication that may lead to aggression. Cats without proper tails, or the proper use of their tails, are often defensive (usually incorrectly interpreted as aggressive) for this reason.
Cat’s tails tell tales about how our cats are feeling; it is up to us to read the messages correctly or deal with the consequences.