Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails: Reasons, How To Understand and Tips For Kitty Comfort

You’ve probably seen a dog wag his tail to express himself, but what about the cat? Cats may also wag their tails for different reasons, so when you see your feline friend doing it, you may wonder what it actually means.

In this article, we’ll examine the various kinds of tail wagging seen in cats and how to identify and understand them. We’ve also included tips to help your cat feel comfortable, allowing you to become a better paw-rent!


We’d like to extend our thanks to the following representatives for their valuable insights:

  • Dawn LaFontaine, Founder of The Cat Is In The Box,
  • Dr. Sarah Wooten (DVM) Pumpkin Pet Insurance and
  • Nora Glover, Founder of Catademy.

  • *Disclaimer: The information in this article is not meant to replace the advice and expertise of vets. You should consult a vet on your cat’s health condition for an accurate diagnosis.


    How to understand a cat’s tail wagging

    A cat’s tail motion is usually described as a swishing, twitching or flicking action (rather than strong wagging seen in dogs).

    To understand why it happens, you can look out for these 3 factors:
      
  • Tail position
  • Look at how the tail is positioned when the wagging occurs. You can see if it’s upright or close to the ground. It may even be curled in or tucked between their hind legs!

  • Tail movement
  • You can also examine the way their tail moves. This includes which part of the tail is moving and how fast it’s moving as well.

  • Body language
  • Lastly, the way the cat’s body is positioned or moving along with the tail is also an important factor in distinguishing between different kinds of wagging. For instance, your cat may be sitting down or in a hunting stance.

    Why do cats wag their tail infographic

    When is a cat’s tail wagging good? 

    1. They feel safe around you 



    Tail position: Relaxed
    Tail movement: Tip gently and slowly swishes
    Body language: Sitting or lying down

    Cats are alert by nature, so if they’re lounging or asleep beside you, it shows that they’re relaxed and comfortable. The tips of the tail will also gently wave when you communicate with them.  

    As a bonus, they may also lie on their back and show you their belly. This is a huge indicator that they trust you as an owner!   

    2. They’re confident or greeting 



    Tail position: Upright
    Tail movement: Only the tips softly curls and moves around
    Body language: An upright posture with body facing towards you

    If your cat holds her tail straight up with only the tip gently curling, it means that she’s confident and displaying a lively and playful attitude. She’s interested in communicating with you or other cats!

    Additionally, she’ll also fully face her body and head in the direction of the cat or person she’s interacting with!

    3. They’re excited and happy to see you



    Tail position: Lifted
    Tail movement: Whole tail swishes from left to right
    Body language: Rubs her body against you

    A lifted tail that’s wagging from top to bottom indicates an excited cat! This may happen when you come home and she immediately wants your attention. 

    Her tail may even wrap around your legs as a sign of her affection, so give her some love!

    4. They’re alert or in hunting mode 



    Tail position: Can be upright or relaxed
    Tail movement: Tip quickly twitches
    Body language: Crouching with slow inching movements

    If you’ve seen this motion while your cat is watching birds from your window, it’s a sign that she’s ready to pounce. Cats are natural hunters and this little tail twitch may indicate that they’re concentrating. 

    They may also display this tail twitch when they’re playfully hunting as well. This is usually seen when they’re playing with interactive toys

    When is a cat’s tail wagging bad? 

    1. They feel frightened



    Tail position: Positioned downwards or tucked between legs
    Tail movement: Tip curls and swishes intermittently
    Body language: Body curls into a more rounded shape

    A frightened cat will have her tail down with only the tip waving and curling sporadically. Similar to a dog’s behaviour, her tail may also be tucked in between her legs to show that she’s submitting. 

    She’ll slowly round her body to appear smaller and will inch away until she finds an opportunity to escape.

    2. They feel territorial



    Tail position: Upright and fixed
    Tail movement: Whole tail quivers rapidly
    Body language: Body is upright and backs up against a person, object or space

    When you see your cat backing up against something with a rapidly quivering tail that’s upright, it shows that she’s telling people or other cats not to enter her territory.

    This is also a signal that she’s about to spray urine, which is a common method of territory marking for cats. When this happens, watch out as she may urinate all over!

    3. They’re irritated or annoyed



    Tail position: Low to the ground
    Tail movement: Whole tail slowly swishes from left to right
    Body language: Sitting upright with ears up

    Sometimes your cat may be unhappy and wants to be left alone. You can deduce this if she’s sitting upright with a swishing tail when you pat her.

    Dawn (Founder of The Cat In The Box) mentions that the swishing may even turn into a whip, which shows that the irritation or anger has increased. At this point, it’s best to give her some space as she may nip or scratch you if you persist.

    4. They may be falling ill or in pain



    Tail position: Not relaxed while they’re lying down
    Tail movement: Tip twitches or taps intensely
    Body language: Sitting or lying down

    Sometimes, a cat’s tail wagging while they’re resting or sleeping can mean that they’re sick or in pain. This behaviour looks similar to when a cat feels relaxed, so you’ll need to look out for other signals as well to differentiate between them. 

    You can take a look at her recent habits. Check if she’s been skipping out on her food, spending more time hiding or breathing loudly while sleeping or awake. You can also bring her to a vet for an accurate diagnosis. 

    Ways to make your cat feel more comfortable

    Yellow cat resting on sofa

    If you discover that your cat’s tail wagging is an indicator that she’s ill, in pain or feeling scared, the best thing you can do is to make your precious feline feel more comfortable in your space. You can heed the following tips!

    1. Provide a comfortable environment

    Even if you own a large and beautiful home, it may be overwhelming for your kitty, especially if she’s new. She’ll need to get used to her new environment, so a small amount of space will do for now!

    Here’s a checklist of what a cat needs to feel right at home:

    Proper cat bed
    Litter box
    Food dish and water bowl
    Scratching post or climbing tree
    Plenty of toys

    Aside from these, take the lighting and sounds into account. Make sure you lower the brightness of the lights so it’s not too glaring. Turn down loud music and avoid talking loudly so she won’t feel startled. 

    2. Create plenty of hiding spaces

    Nora (Founder of Catademy) advises that easy access to hiding spots is a great way for cats to cope with stress. Without such opportunities, your feline can get nervous or even sick in extreme situations.

    You can create hiding spots or forts with things like cave-style beds, open boxes and tunnels. The usage of paper or plastic bags is not recommended as cats can suffocate from being trapped.

    3. Use food as a form of trust

    If you’re dealing with a shy cat, place the food and water bowl at the area where she feels most comfortable and let her be. 

    Feed her at the same times throughout the day so that she’ll start to see you as the provider of her food. You can also treat her to some delicious snacks to build trust!

    4. Use scent as an enrichment 

    Cats have a sharp sense of smell that often tends to be overlooked. The usage of scent is an affordable and fun method to keep them happy and stress-free!

    You can use the following ways to introduce cat-friendly scents into your home:

    Your clothes or towels
    Place your belongings near their hiding spots so they can sniff them at their own time. This will help them get used to the way you smell so they can recognise you.

    Herbs
    You can also use cat-safe herbs to stimulate their sense of smell, including oregano, parsley and rosemary. Cats are especially attracted to catnip, which is a plant belonging to the mint family.

    Store your cat’s favourite toys in a bag filled with your selected herb for around 2 days. Your cat can then enjoy her scented toy!

    Cat pheromone spray
    If the scent of herbs is too strong for you, Dr. Wooten (DVM from Pumpkin Pet Insurance) recommends feline pheromone spray as an alternative as humans can’t smell it. It’s designed to reduce stress by mimicking the natural pheromones of cats. 

    5. Use interactive toys

    Cat playing with interactive toy

    You can make use of interactive toys to stimulate your cat as well! As a tip, you can use fishing pole-type toys to play with her while she’s in her hiding space so that there’s some space between the both of you.

    For other toys like mice or balls, don’t move towards your cat when you’re handling the item as she may become defensive. You can gently move the toy out of her view instead so that it’ll intrigue her and make her feel comfortable.

    6. Move at your cat’s pace

    Let your cat take as long as she needs to move out of her hiding spots. Even if she does, it’s best not to immediately pick her up and hold her. 

    This helps her feel more at ease because she’ll feel like she’s in control.

    7. Take her to the vet 

    If your cat’s tail wagging has been accompanied by other symptoms of pain or illness, take her to the vet immediately. You’ll be able to deduce if there’s a more harmful medical condition behind it and get suitable treatment promptly.

    Frequently asked questions

    Cat's tail wagging

    Why do cats wag their tails while lying down?

    This depends on the context, the way the tail wags and the cat’s body language. If she’s lounging or relaxing beside you, your cat feels secure and comfortable. 

    There might be a deeper problem that needs to be treated immediately if there are any symptoms of pain or discomfort involved.

    Why do cats wag their tails when you talk to them? 

    A cat may swish, flick or twitch her tail for a variety of reasons when you speak to her. It could be because she’s feeling playful, happy, anxious or annoyed.

    As a dedicated owner, it’s up to you to examine her tail wagging and body language to understand the emotions she’s trying to convey.

    Why do cats wag their tails at each other? 

    If your cat’s tail is upright with only the tip curling gently, she’s greeting a feline friend! 

    But if you find that her tail is slowly swishing back and forth, or if it’s upright and quivering, your cat may be feeling territorial, angry or disturbed. Quickly take her away as she might engage in a fight with the other cat!

    Do cats wag their tails when they’re happy?

    Yes, a cat can wag her tail when she’s happy or excited. But it could also be due to a variety of other reasons.

    Other things to look at would be the tail’s position, movement, body language and context to figure out exactly what the wagging means and what you can do about it.

    Why does my cat slap me in the face with her tail? 

    When your cat becomes more comfortable, she may slap your face with her tail as a method of getting attention. You can take a look at her body post-tail slapping to see if she’s frustrated or happy.

    If she steps back after slapping, it means that she wants to be left alone. On the other hand, a jumping cat means that she’s excited. 

    Understanding your cat’s tail wagging

    Tail wagging is quite normal for cats, but its meaning may not be as straightforward as you think. It’s important to look out for the way the tail wags in order to fully understand it. 

    We hope our article has helped you to comprehend this adorable phenomenon a bit better, so you can build a stronger relationship with your fur baby!

    Article by:
    Andrea
    Contributors:
    There's nothing Andrea loves more than dancing and playing the Sims 4. She is highly intrigued by astrology and enjoys fantasy novels of any sort. You can often find her obsessing over adorable animal videos.
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