Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails?

Caitlin Dempsey


An orange cat siting on a tree looking.

Cats are expressive animals. A lot can be understood about a cat’s emotions by reading their body language. From the angles of their ears, their body stance, and all the way down to their tails, cats will show how they are feeling.

One of the more confusing aspects of a cat’s body language is their tail. How a cat holds their tail, if its moving, and how fast, can provide a window into whether or not your cat is in a happy or angry state.

Related: How to Understand the Language of Cat Tails

Anatomy of a cat’s tail

A cat’s tail is composed of several vertebrae, muscles, and ligaments that allow it to move in a variety of directions. The tail is an extension of the spine and is connected to the pelvic bones by muscles and tendons.

A black cat with white socks and chest with yellow arrows pointing to different parts of the body.
The external anatomy of a cat’s body. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

The muscles in a cat’s tail are responsible for controlling the tail’s movements. The tail muscles are innervated by nerves that originate in the spinal cord. These nerves send signals to the muscles, which contract and relax to produce different tail movements.

Cat are able to move their entire tails or just the tips of the tails.

While the primary physiological function of a cat’s tail is for balance and jumping, this appendage is also an extension of a cat’s emotion.

Twenty-four consecutive images of a cat running. Photos: Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.
This series of 24 photograph series of a cat running shows how a cat’s tail is used to help with balance and locomotion. As the cat moves their hind legs, the bending of the vertebrae column lowers the tail. Photos: Eadweard Muybridge, 1887, Library of Congress.

How cats move their tail

Cats move their tails by first sending signals to the tail muscles from the nervous system.

The nerves in the tail muscles are part of the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing.

When a cat is experiencing a strong emotion, such as fear or excitement, the autonomic nervous system is activated, and the cat’s body responds by producing a series of physiological changes. One of these changes is an increase in the cat’s heart rate, which sends more blood and oxygen to the cat’s muscles, including the tail muscles.

The increase in blood flow to the tail muscles causes them to contract and relax rapidly, producing a wagging motion. The direction, speed, and intensity of tail wagging by a cat can convey information about the cat’s emotions and intentions.

What tail wagging means in cats

A twitching tail can indicate a range of emotions, depending on the speed and direction of the twitch.

A slow and gentle tail wag can indicate that the cat is feeling relaxed and content. When relaxed by slightly alert, a cat will slow swish just the ends of their tail back and forth.

When hunting or playing, or even when mildly irritated or frustrated, cats will wag just the ends of their tails. This fast and aggressive tail wag indicates that the cat is feeling threatened or angry.

A thrashing tail, the quick and tense back and forth swishing of the cat’s tail, is always a sign of anger.

Tail wagging differences among cat breeds

Tail wagging in cats is not a behavior that is seen in all cat breeds. Some breeds, such as the Siamese, are known for their lack of tail wagging behavior. An obvisouly, some cats, like the Manx cat, have little or no tail to wag.

The variation in tail wagging behavior among cat breeds is thought to be related to genetics. Studies have shown that the length and shape of a cat’s tail are influenced by a variety of genes, including the CFA11 gene, which is responsible for determining the length of a cat’s tail.

Tail wagging in cats

Understanding tail wagging in cats is just one of the many ways that we can learn to communicate and connect with our feline friends. We can gain a better understanding of our cats’ needs and emotions by observing their body language.

4 reasons why your cat wags their tail


Bernstein, P. L., & Friedmann, E. (2014). Social behaviour of domestic cats in the human home. In The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour (pp. 71-80). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

de Mouzon, C., & Leboucher, G. (2023). Multimodal communication in the human–cat relationship: a pilot study. Animals13(9), 1528. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani13091528

Kiley-Worthington, M. (1976). The tail movements of ungulates, canids and felids with particular reference to their causation and function as displays. Behaviour56(1-2), 69-114. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4533714

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of Geographyrealm.com and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.