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Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails? Vets Decode the Secret Messages They’re Trying to Send

Plus, see some seriously adorable photos of cat tails in action!


Cat tails are strange things. When a dog wags their tail, it often means they’re feeling happy and playful, but why do cats wag their tails? The reasons tend to be a bit more mysterious. Kitties may twitch their tails in happiness, but some movements may indicate they’re hungry or even angry — and if you misinterpret their tail gestures, you could be in for a bite or hiss! Thankfully, pet behavior pros have given much careful consideration to cat tails, and there are generally accepted meanings for many different types of movements. It turns out tail wags can be just as varied and meaningful as meows. Read on to decode eight of the most common ways cats use their tails.

1. If a cat’s tail is high in the air

Cat with tail sticking straight up

If your cat is walking toward you with their tail sticking straight up, they’re probably in a pretty good mood. “When a cat’s tail is high in the air, it means they are confident in themselves,” says Dr. Dwight Alleyne, veterinarian and expert for JustAnswer. Think of a high-up tail as a cat’s way of strutting their stuff. Sometimes a cat may even greet you with their tail like this. “If the cat is greeting you with a tail straight in the air, they are saying that they are open to you and happy to see you,” explains Dr. Kirsten Ronngren, veterinarian and expert for ManyPets. We’re happy to see them too!

2. If a cat’s tail is curved

Cat looking off to the side with curved tail
“Are you gonna come play with me?”Katrina Baker Photography/Getty

“A curved tail often means the cat is happy and content,” says Dr. Alleyne. If your cat’s tail looks like a furry question mark, they are ready to play. Now’s the time to put down whatever you’re doing and get out the string toy or catnip-filled mouse.

3. If a cat’s tail is low

Gray cat sitting with tail low to the ground
“Hmm… I don’t know about this”Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty

If your cat’s tail is positioned low to the ground, be careful that your fur baby doesn’t take a swipe at you. “A low tail often means a cat is uncertain about a situation and is in investigative mode,” explains Dr. Alleyne. You may see your cat with a low tail when they’re looking out the window, investigating a bird or other interesting things outside, or when they’re meeting someone new and not yet sure about the vibe.

4. If a cat’s tail is tucked between the body

Cat sitting on shelf with tail tucked between front legs
“Guys? I’m a little anxious”rai/Getty

Sometimes you may see your cat’s tail tucked inward. “If a cat has a tail that is tucked between their body, this indicates fear or submission,” says Dr. Ronngren. When your kitty has their tail like this, you’ll want to check for any stimuli that may be worrying them. Turns out the idiom “having your tail between your legs” means you’re feeling less-than-confident for a reason!

5. If a cat’s tail is puffy

Cat doing "Halloween cat" pose with fluffy tail

If your cat’s tail suddenly gets fluffy, look out! “A puffy tail often means the cat is alarmed or trying to intimidate someone,” says Dr. Alleyne. As cute as it may look to us, when a cat puffs up their tail, they’re actually trying to make themselves look bigger and scarier to potential predators. A fluffy tail often goes with an arched back, giving your fuzzy pal that classic “Halloween cat” look. While this tail style can indicate trouble, it can also happen during play, notes Dr. Ronngren — so look out for fluff if you and your cat are ever enjoying some chase time.

Related: What Makes Cats Do the ‘Halloween Cat’ Pose? The Answer Is Frighteningly Simple

6. If a cat’s tail is whipping back and forth

Cat looking straight ahead and wagging tail
“Game on!”Taizi Goncalves/Getty

A tail that whips rapidly back and forth can send mixed signals. Dr. Alleyne explains: “Moving the tail like this often means a cat is agitated or excited about something.” If your cat is agitated they may go into attack mode and you’ll probably want to back off, but a whipping tail may also be an invitation to play, depending on the context.

7. If a cat’s tail is swishing

Cat laying down with tail swishing
“Mmm… treats”LewisTsePuiLung/Getty

If your cat’s tail is swishing like they’re in front of a wind machine, they might be in a contemplative mood. “This often means a cat is focused on something,” Dr. Alleyne says. Your cat could be studying a toy or a treat. However, “It may also be a precursor to agitation,” he adds, so as with a whipping tail, be sure to watch out for context clues.

8. If a cat’s tail is wrapped around another animal

Two orange cats cuddling with tails wrapped around each other
“You’re my best friend!”Nathalie Dupont/Getty

If you have two cats, you may see one of them wrapping their tail around the other. This picture-perfect pose is even sweeter than it looks. “A cat will wrap their tail around another animal to show affection,” says Dr. Ronngren. Think of this tail move as a cat’s version of a hug. It doesn’t get cuter than that!

Related: Why Doesn’t My Cat Purr? Feline Pro on Whether You Should Be Concerned

The tale of tails

The way cats move their tails may seem enigmatic at times, but it turns out the most common tail movements actually have distinct meanings. With this information in mind, you’ll be better able to communicate with your feline friend and understand their varied needs. We’ll certainly raise a tail to that!

Read on for more about cat behaviors!

Why Do Cats Loaf? Vet Experts Reveal the Sweet Reason Behind This Cute Behavior

Do Cats Dream? Vet Reveals What Really Goes On In Feline Heads While They Sleep

Try This Slow Blink Trick to Bond Even More With Your Cat — Vets Share the Easy How-To

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