Cat with tail in the air

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Why is my cat wagging its tail? Vets reveal the surprising answer

Get inside the complex mind of your cat — by looking at its tail.

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If you’re mystified by your cat’s tail-wagging behavior, you’re not alone. But experts say that a feline’s swishing tail may be one of the key ways to understand what your cat is thinking.

“If a cat is wagging their tail, they’re trying to communicate,” Cherice Roth tells Inverse. Roth is the chief veterinary officer at Fuzzy, which provides telehealth veterinary care and vet-approved products.

But it can be hard to parse out the subtle emotional differences between various tail movements. In this guide, Inverse interviews experts to break down the complex behavioral science behind your feline’s swishing tail so you can develop a better relationship with your pet.

“Reading what their tail is saying is an easy way to keep a cat healthy and happy,” Roth adds.

If your cat is swishing its tail while focused on an object or prey, it might be getting ready to play or pounce.Getty

Why is my cat swishing its tail?

A cat’s moving tail can mean a number of different things including excitement, uncertainty, displeasure, or pain, Molly DeVoss, a certified feline training specialist who runs the nonprofit Cat Behavior Solutions, tells Inverse.

The speed of the wagging, the position of the tail, and other body language cues can help clue you into what it means.

Lindsay Butzer, a veterinarian affiliated with pet company Zesty Paws, tells Inverse that a deliberate “swishing” of the tail could indicate your pet is honing in to pounce on a target such as a mouse or a toy.

“On the other hand, if you notice rapid swishing that doesn’t accompany any pouncing or playing activities, it’s more likely that they are perturbed and need some time alone,” Butzer says.

Your cat’s tail motions go far beyond swishing, and the position or general movement of your feline’s tail may reveal striking insight into their mood, says Butzer.

A puffy and flared upright cat tail indicates a cat is scared and trying to make itself look bigger by arching its tail over its back and angling its body sideways. This fluffy tail behavior — also known as piloerection — may be accompanied by hissing. Chyrle Bonk, a veterinarian at PetKeen, tells Inverse that a flared tail typically indicates anger.

Conversely, “if the tail is upright with a little hook shape at the end, potentially resembling a question mark, then that means they’re happy and come in peace,” Butzer says.

Roth adds that some cats will affectionately “hug” their owners while being petted by hooking their tails around their humans’ hands, arms, or neck.

Meanwhile, a low and tucked cat tail suggests the cat is nervous. DeVoss says that a frightened cat will hold its tail low — practically touching the floor — and tucked between its legs.

“If a cat is nervous and doesn’t feel like they can get away, they’ll crouch close to the ground and tuck their tail around their body or between their legs,” Roth says.

Finally, a horizontal tail held parallel to the floor suggests the cat could be uncertain of its environment.

Your pet’s tail twitching could indicate they are dreaming. Getty

Why is my cat wagging its tail while purring?

“Tail movement alone isn’t usually enough to discern the mood or temperament of a cat,” Butzer says. To fully understand your cat’s tail swishing behavior, you need to pay attention to the bigger picture.

“The eyes, ears, and stance combined with tail position and movement are important clues to what the cat is feeling,” DeVoss says.

Is your cat swishing its tail in the corner of the room by itself? It’s probably not in the best mood. But Butzer says if your cat wags its tail while playing or stalking, then its tail swishing likely signals excitement, focus, or engagement with the activity.

The kind of noises your cat makes while tail swishing can also help you interpret your cat’s behavior.

  • Growling and tense: indicates anger and annoyance
  • Lying down and snoozing: indicates relaxation
  • Curling around your legs and purring: indicates contentment

“Tail movement while purring is interesting because it can mean that the cat is self-soothing,” Roth says. Contrary to popular belief, purring may not always indicate happiness, but it does signal your pet is trying to feel better, much like a baby sucking its thumb, Roth explains.

Why is my cat wagging its tail so fast?

“Generally, the quicker a cat’s tail is flicking back and forth the more likely it is that they’re on edge or put off in some way,” Butzer says.

If your cat is quickly swishing its tail for a prolonged time — while not performing any other activities — along with any pouncing, it’s probably not a good idea to play with your pet then.

“When the tail is fully and rapidly wagging, they are about to attack prey or another cat,” DeVoss says.

Similarly, Roth says that a cat swishing its tail while looking at a toy or another cat probably means it’s about to jump and play.

Speed of tail swishing can also indicate your pet’s emotional state of mind. Roth summarizes the different speeds of feline tagging. Slow and low swishing likely means the cat is slightly annoyed. A low tail flicking quickly back and forth signals unhappiness and may indicate the cat is prepared to defend itself. If you notice this behavior, give your pet some space and let your cat hide if it wants. Finally, a “rapid swishing motion” indicates a cat is happy, playful, and mentally stimulated.

Fact-paced tail wagging combined with other telltale behavioral cues can also reveal whether your cat is agitated or not.

“Rapid tail movement, along with pinned ears, a tense body, and growling usually indicate anger, annoyance or distress,” Bonk says.

Why is my cat wagging its tail while sleeping?

DeVoss says she has witnessed cats moving their tail while sleeping — a common observation for many feline owners.

Just as sleeping humans might involuntarily move their bodies in response to changes in their environment — like their partner getting up from bed or the noise of a passing vehicle — cats also exhibit the same behavior. Butzer says cats are known to be light sleepers. If something is happening but not important enough to crawl out of bed, cats will usually acknowledge it with a “flick of the tail.”

“Cat tail movement while they’re asleep usually indicates an involuntary response to something they hear but don’t fully acknowledge by opening their eyes or getting up,” Butzer says.

Bonk adds, “It can also mean that a cat is feeling content and safe enough to continue to sleep even though they may have been momentarily awakened.

While we don’t know much about cat sleep (or human sleep), many experts believe cats do dream.

Bonk and Roth say that muscle twitching occurs commonly when cats sleep, which can also involve twitching of the feet and tail muscles. DeVoss says her cat’s lips will also twitch as if trying to meow in its sleep. By observing your pet’s sleepy tail twitching behavior, you can gain some insight into their dream world.

“It’s likely whatever they are dreaming about matches scenarios where they would express their feelings with their tails when they are awake,” Roth says.

But despite all your best efforts, some cats will just send mixed signals. If something seems off, contact your veterinarian. DeVoss remembers being troubled by one cat’s odd behavior, which included swishing its tail high up in the air and shin biting. It turns out the cat had arthritis.

“I suspected she might have been in pain and asked the clinic to evaluate her. Lucky was swishing the tail because she was feeling pain,” DeVoss explains.

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