What Does It Mean When A Cat Wags Its Tail?

In America, over 30% of households own cats, and of those households, most own at least two cats.

As a cat owner, you love your cat as is. The floof, the noises, the weird yoga positions, even the pure sass – it’s all part of that purrfect package, right?

The chances are that you love your kitty as they are but, you’d also love to understand your cat a little bit more too. They can’t speak to us with words but they do have a language of their own.

Cats express themselves in all kinds of ways, with their voice, their body, their ears, and of course, with their tail.

A cat’s tail can be super-expressive, and despite common assumptions, isn’t just used to thwack around when they seem a little annoyed.

So what does it mean when a cat shakes its tail? What does it mean when a cat wags its tail? Do cats lift their tails when they are happy?

There’s a lot more to a cat’s tail wag than you might realize. Let’s take a closer look:

What Is The Purpose Of A Cat’s Tail?

A cat’s tail is an incredible part of their anatomy, helping them to balance, especially when they walk on fences, branches or shelves. The cat’s tail can also be helpful when they chase and attack prey.

Cats can also use their tail to communicate with other animals and their owners and interestingly, it is only the domestic cat that holds its tail erect, compared to wild cats.

As an owner, it is so important to respect that a cat’s tail should never be pulled. If you have small children, making sure they know to never pull the cat’s tail helps prevent your kitty suffering some nasty injuries. It can cause nerve damage and because the area has toileting nerves within it, a cat may struggle with pooping or peeing after tail damage.

What Does It Mean When A Cat Wags Their Tail?

Like many others, in the past, you may have asked ‘what does it mean if a cat wags its tail? You may have been told by many that it means that the cat is annoyed. This is a standard assumption that prevents us from understanding them as much as we could about our feline friends.

Cats are incredibly complex and their ‘tail language’ is no exception. They express a lot with their body and if you learn their tail cues, you can start to understand more about their emotions, boosting your bond as pet and owner. It can also give you a vital insight into your pet’s health and wellbeing, so boosts your ability to care well for them too.

Different Cat Tail Wags

A High, Happy Tail

By default, cats will walk along with a high, happy tail. This is a really healthy sign that shows the cat is switched on, alert and interested in its surroundings. Although it might get in the way, slapping you in the face or, interrupting video conferences, a high, happy cat tail shows that their wellbeing is really good, and they are happy and healthy at the moment.

Low Swish

The low tail swish is where the cat’s tail is low to the ground as they are seated, lying down or standing, and the tail moves from one side to another, but it is not lifted off the ground. It swishes from one side to another going to one side quickly, flicking the end, then moving to the other side.
This kind of language is often presented when a cat is not happy about their situation. Perhaps you are annoying them, or the dog is annoying them. Perhaps they are in the vet’s office or they are seeing another cat they don’t like.

Low Wagging

Low wagging is where the tail is really low and the whole appendage is moving side to side, without a flick. It is likely to be tucked strongly between the cats legs, or be occurring alongside the animal being very low and flattening their ears. This is because it tends to be associated with fear, and so it can present itself in situations where a cat is not just unhappy, but scared.

Gentle, Slow Wag

A gentle slow wag from side to side is a good sign your cat is irritated. They are starting to be annoyed, but it is a warning and they aren’t yet angry, so it is a good sign to back off. If you don’t, your cat may proceed to be really angry and scream at you, or the object of their rage, such as another cat.

Quick, High Swish

A quick high swish is where the cat’s tail is high and swishing from one side to another. When paired with perked ears, dilated pupils and a focused face, it probably means they are playful.

Usually, tails are low when the cat is annoyed so a high, quick swish is likely to mean they want to play. Do be warned though, if they are staring at you or a part of you it may mean you’re the prey in the game and you’re about to be pounced on!

Snoozy Twitching

When a cat is sleeping and you stroke them, talk to them or kiss them, their tail may twitch. This is a signal that they know you are there and can be paired with some ear movement which indicated they have heard you. This language is the cat letting you know that they have identified you are there, but they feel secure enough to carry on with their snooze.

Short, Sharp, Twitching

Short sharp tail twitching is most likely going to occur when a cat is focusing on something like the birds outside. This is likely to be paired with their whiskers being pushed forward and a little bit of kitty chirping, which sounds like the cats in this video.

Tail Shaking

With this kind of feline language, the cat will often headbutt you and then their tail will shake at the end, like a rattlesnake. This may also be paired with purring, a meow or a ‘prrt’. It usually means they are excited to see you and is a really cute, expressive piece of body language to enjoy as their owner.

Big, Fluffy Tail

A big and fluffy tail from your cat is likely to indicate your cat feels like they are in danger. They will usually do it to make themselves look larger in a confrontational situation, along with an arched back. It can also occur because of shock and surprise too. If a cat is very shocked they may fling themselves in a certain direction, or walk with an arch in their middle along with a fluffed-up tail.

Tail Wrapping

A cat wrapping a tail around your leg, arm, hand or neck is often a sign of affection. They are more likely to give you head butts, purrs and snuggles, but tail wrapping can happen and it is very cute when it does.

What Does It Mean If A Cat Wags Its Tail And Is Acting Strangely?

Rarely a cat wagging its tail can mean that it is sick and it needs veterinary attention. If it is wagging its tail and it is also laying down, panting, vomiting or otherwise acting strangely, it is important to get them assessed by a vet.

My Cat Has A Limp Tail, Is That Normal?

A cat who suddenly displays a limp tail may have a medical issue such as:

  • A skin infection
  • Nerve damage
  • A tail break
  • Self tail mutilation

If your cat suddenly has a drooping tail, take it to the vets to get assessed. It may well be paired with serious issues like internal bleeding if the cause is a car accident, so it is imperative the vet sees the cat quickly.

“If cats could talk, they wouldn’t” – Nan Porter

There is plenty about our cats that we will never know. However, now at least, you can feel a little more enlightened about their tail language and what it means. Now, you’re a little closer to understanding that tiny, judgemental, adorable floofer you share a home with, which can only ever be a great thing.

About Anneka Dalrymple

I am a writer of 6 years, and I’m a total animal nerd. I love wildlife, but none so much as my own tiny lion, April. She’s a 10 year old floofer who adopted us, and we’re so much happier for that. I have also grown up with animals and at one point we had 6 cats, 2 dogs and 2 rabbits. Pets are a total gift.

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