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Home > Cats > Can Cats Control Their Tails? Feline Anatomy Explained

Can Cats Control Their Tails? Feline Anatomy Explained

cat tail closeup

Cats can voluntary or involuntarily control their tail because a cat’s tail consists of a series of muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves which give cats a full range of motion over their tail.

Cat owners are starting to pay more attention to their cats’ bodily movements and many cat owners are curious as to whether cats can control their tails, or if it is a reaction to certain feelings your cat may experience. Understanding how cats control their tails and what their tail movements mean can help you gauge how your cat is feeling and it is one of the best indications of the mood your cat is in.

If you have been keenly admiring your cat’s tail and curious as to what certain tail movements may mean, or even how cats can control their tails, then this article has all the answers you need.


Cat Tail 101

A cat has plenty of nerve endings that allow your cat to feel their tail and use various muscles to control its tail movements without having to give much thought to it. Their tails are an extension of their spinal column and are constructed of many vertebrae. This makes the tail sensitive, and your cat can completely feel their tail and move it in accordance to their moods such as excitement or distress.

Cats express their body language through two main sources, meowing and their tail. Since cats cannot speak to communicate with their owners, you should pay close attention to your cat’s body language so that you ensure your cat is mostly feeling content and comfortable, rather than in a state of annoyance and distress. Fortunately, this is easy to determine, as cats are constantly controlling their tails in such a way that makes it easy for you as an owner to identify the position of your cats’ tails.

savannah cat standing by the window
Image Credit: kuban_girl, Shutterstock

How Are Cats Able To Control Their Tail?

Your cat can control their tail by using the muscles located throughout the base of the tail to tip and flex certain nerves and maintaining the tail’s structure through its tendons and ligaments located along the tail. Just like your cat’s body, the tail is lithe and controlled automatically by their body and nervous system. The tail is controlled through nerve impulses sent to the brain which ‘move’ the tail in accordance to your cat’s emotional or physical state, which then tells their muscles to ‘move’.

Interestingly, cats move their tails depending on how they are feeling, much like dogs do when they wag their tails out of excitement. Now, you may have witnessed your cat vigorously wag its tail, but its tail does seem to have precise movements, whether the tail is curled upright, or swaying side to side.

All the ligaments, tendons, bones, muscles, and nerves play a role in how your cat controls their tail. Therefore, a cat that has damaged a specific nerve, tendon, or ligament in its tail may appear to lose some mobility in the affected area, giving it’s tail a kink where the injury has occurred.

There are two primary ways that cats can move their tails, namely:

1. Voluntarily

This happens when the cat is conscious and aware of the movements and positions their tails are in. Such as swishing their tail freely, which can commonly be seen during an activity that makes them feel excited, such as feeding or playtime. Your cat is controlling their tail according to its moods, whether emotional or physical (such as external pains). During this time, your cat is completely aware of what they are doing with their tail with purpose.

2. Involuntarily

Involuntary tail movements typically occur when your cat is in a deep sleep. They may swish or flick their tail, mainly due to a dream they are having which triggers a certain mood they are feeling from the dream. In some instances, it may be a reflex that moves your cat’s tail without them being aware, such as when they get a sudden fright.

cat sleeping in cat tree
Image Credit: Piqsels

Why Do Cats Move Their Tails?

Communication is the main reason that your feline will move its tail. Not only is it a voluntary response to how they are feeling, but it also helps cats communicate with other cats or dogs as body language is key when it comes to animal communication. Cats will sometimes move their tail and verbally communicate at the same time, particularly when they are excited or stressed, but rarely when they are relaxed and content.

  • Non-verbal communication
  • Involuntary reaction to a feeling during sleep
  • Voluntary reaction to mood
  • To communicate to other felines
calico cat having treats
Image Credit: Andriy Blokhin, Shutterstock

What Do Different Cat Tail Movements Indicate?

Tail control in our feline friends can give you a good indication of how they are feeling. Each movement is precise and purposeful, except for sleeping cats.

  • A happy and confident cat will sway their tail in a relaxed position with the tip slightly curly in. This is showing that they are feeling happy and excited. In kittens, their tail will noticeably wag while they are playing with their favorite toys.
  • Cats who are feeling relaxed and sleepy in their environment will flick and swish their tail gently, generally when they are lying in a comfy spot.
  • If your cat is flicking the tip of its tail forwards and backward in a rigid way, there may be something in the environment that is piquing their curiosity; however, this can also be seen in cats who are feeling irritated by an environmental disturbance, such as loud noises or disturbances from strangers and other pets in the household.
  • A common sign your cat is greeting you or looking for some human interaction is when they have their tail pointed straight up with the tip curved forward. This may explain why your cat motions their tail in this position when you get home or if they haven’t seen your around for a while.
  • If your cat is feeling confident, it may walk around with its tail high in the air with a slight curve to the middle. This shows that they are happy in their surroundings and comfortable enough to move around freely and explore any activity happening around them.
  • However, a frightened cat may have their tail pointed rigidly in the air, sometimes with their fur standing up near the base of their tail, indicating that something in the environment is not making them happy or comfortable. The cat is remaining alert and engaged. This can be commonly seen in cats who are greeted by an unfamiliar dog or cat as they feel threatened.

According to veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward, some cats may ‘wag’ their tail when they are feeling unwell or in pain. If you do notice that your cat is waging their tail, displaying abnormal behavior, or hiding more frequently, it is a good idea to take them to a veterinarian for a check-up.

Interesting Facts About Your Cats Tail
  • Cats who are born without a tail – but rather a stub, will still move whatever part of the stub is remaining depending on how they are feeling, which further shows that tail control is an automatic bodily response to stimuli. This will not look as graceful as a cat with a fully functional tail, but it shows how important a cat’s tail is in terms of its body language. This also applies to cats who have had their tail amputated, or even injured.
  • Your cat’s tail helps them with balance and coordination, which is why cats are so agile.
  • Tail injuries can cause permanent damage to your cat. Keep in mind that since your cat’s tail is connecting to its spine, injuries may play a role in your cat’s mobility and a vet should check if the injuries are severe enough to have caused damage to your cat’s spinal vertebrae or nervous system.
  • Approximately 10% of your cat’s total number of bones are in their tail, which has between 19 to 23 vertebrae.
  • Although a dog wagging their tail is a clear sign of happiness, this is the opposite in cats.


Final Thoughts

The extent of control your cat has over its tail is a fascinating discovery. This allows you to visually see how your cat is doing emotional-wise and can be especially beneficial when you are interacting with your cat and want to see if they enjoy a particular activity, or downright get annoyed by it. Watching how your cat moves and controls its tail can also be entertaining and help you further understand how your cat non-verbally expresses itself.

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Featured Image Credit: JackieLou DL, Pixabay

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