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Let's talk tail talk...

cat in pink What cats are saying with their tails

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cat paw prints

Tail Talk

Part 1 of our series on Feline Communication

We cats have a wide range of communication options, and we are very expressive creatures, assuming you humans are willing to take a few language lessons.

Some people, usually the ones that describe themselves as 'dog people' claim that cats are uncommunicative creatures. Just because we don't jam our slobbery noses your crotch or goober all over your face doesn't mean we don't have anything to say.

Cat communication requires careful consideration to interpret; our ears, eyes, tails and body posture give you more information than the sounds we make. We've started this series of articles on cat communication to help promote a better understanding between felines and humans!

One of our more obvious signaling devices is our tail. Let's start with the tail! A cat's tail posture speaks volumes about how he or she is feeling moment to moment. A tail can also express a state of conflicting emotions, which can be confusing to interpret. For a more complete understanding, check our ears, eyes and body posture as well as our tails.

So, what do our tails tell you?
LESSON 1: Interpreting tail talk:

Tail curved down slightly and up at the tip

Emotional state: relaxed, busy or absorbed, mildly curious

Possible translations:

"Off for a stroll, catch up later"

"I see you, but I'm otherwise engaged at the moment"

"Nice to see you, too busy to chat now"

A relaxed cat tail
Tail raised and curved at the tip

Emotional state: engaged and interested, curiosity

Possible translations:

"I'm intrigued by the source of that sound"

"I see something of interest"

"I think that's a sound I know"

An interested cat tail
Tail upright/vertical and curved at the tip

Emotional state: relaxed and happy

Possible translations:

"I'd like to meet you"

"I'm interested but slightly reserved"

"I'm friendly but I don't know you yet"

cat tail showing more sociable interest
Tail vertical with tip straight up

Emotional state: Affection, trust, confidence, feeling secure

Possible translations:

"I'm so happy to see you!"

"I know you and trust you"

"Hello - I'm happy to see you"

greeting you cat tail
Tail low, behind or between the legs

Emotional state: fear, defeat, submission

Possible translations:

"I'm frightened"

"I don't want to fight you"

"I'm being bullied and threatened and I want it to stop"

cat tail expressing fear or submission
Tail lowered and fluffed out - fur erected

Emotional state: fear, defensive aggression, startled

Possible translations:

"I just got a scare"

"I'm frightened of that..."

"Something is threatening me"

low and puffed cat tail expresses fear
Tail swished violently from side to side

Emotional state: conflicted emotions, aggression or conflict signal, anxiety and indecision

Possible translations:

"I'm angry or threatened and I might attack"

"I'm weighing the merits of an offensive maneuver"

"Imminent response pending either fight or flight"

tail lashing can indicate conflicing desires or emotions
Tail still, but tip wagging or twitching

Emotional state: lesser indecision, minor conflict, opposing desires

Possible translations:

"I'm suspicious of these circumstances"

"I'm curious but a bit unsure"

"Hey, is this something fun?"

tail tip twitching or swinging indicates mildly conflicting emotions
Tail vertical and quivering

Emotional state: joyful greeting, eager anticipating, excited happiness, recognition and identification

Possible translations:

"I know you and you know me"

"Hi, it's me and I'm greeting you"

"I know that smell, it's my favorite food"

quivering vertical tail is often a joyful greeting
Tail straight up and fully fluffed/fur erect

Emotional state: fear, distress, aggression, threatening or threatened

Possible translations:

"Look out, I'm dangerous!"

"I'm big and mean, watch out!"

"Back down or I'll attack"

raised and puffed tail indicates agression

Things that are NOT tail-talk...

Balancing Act - we also use our tails for balance - if you see is waiving our tails while we scrabble for balance on a precarious surface, we're not contemplating the alternatives, or considering our leaping-judgment, we're just using our tails for ballast while we balance. To assess our mood from our tail observe us when we are standing or sitting. Tails also communicate while we are walking.

Chasing our tails - well, we do that occasionally, but that's between us and our tails! It's not communication.

Things we don't do with our tails...

Swat flies, horses may use their tails for swatting flies, but cats don't.

Dip our tails over the coffee table and lick them off after, to see what you're eating... nope, we'd never do that!

Did you know...

Domestic felines have the most flexible tails in the cat family? Lions and tigers can not raise their tails vertically behind them, even the nimble cheetah can't raise it's tail as high as a domestic cat!

Notes for encountering strange cats

When you meet a cat you haven't met before, how do you know when you should introduce yourself, or when your attentions would be unwelcome? Use caution when approaching a cat you don't know! Some cats are eager to meet new people, and some feel quite differently about strange humans.

Flick will run to greet new people, on short acquaintance she'll happily sniff their shoes and rifle through their hand bags too.
Buzz waits to be admired, she want to be acknowledged from a distance before being introduced or petted.
Dot is shy, and just doesn't like strangers, and you won't get to meet her at all unless you can show very good cat manners. If you sit quietly on the floor and don't stare at her, she may eventually decide you are well behaved enough for an introduction, but if you speak loudly or have a heavy foot-fall she won't likely let you catch sight of her.

If you meet new cats when you are out or at a friends home, you will likely only see the ones that will consider being introduced to you. To know how to proceed, start by observing the tail, carefully - it's bad manners in cat to stare, and may signal aggression, so just take a passing glance, noting the tail posture. If kitty is sitting or lying down, she's probably quite relaxed, but you won't get much help from the tail. If kitty stands up, she may be excusing herself from your presence, or might be signalling a willingness to meet - check with the tail to determine which.

If the tail is lower than the back, remain where you are and avert your gaze or sit still on the floor and remain quiet. If kitties tail is up, you may speak quietly or approach slightly, watching the tail and ears for indications of how to proceed. If kitty is eager to meet you her tail will go up when you speak to her or approach. If not, you are probably being asked to wait. Give kitty some time to consider you.

If you think you are receiving positive indicators, move slowly towards kitty and stop half way - see if kitty will move in your direction. Unless kitty moves towards you, remain where you are and wait. Making friends with strange kitties is not a process that can be rushed, and it requires a fair bit of patience sometimes.

More Reading

How you can tell if your cat is plotting to kill you - comic genius from The Oatmeal

Communicating with your cat - Article from the Fix It Foundation

Cat tails and dog tails, and how the two languages differ

Vetrinary News article on cat tail communication amongst cats

Purrrs to you all.

Flick, Dot and Buzz

Flick, Dot & Buzz
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