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Understanding Feline Body Language

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Dear Jake & Scout,
I have recently adopted a cat from a local shelter. I've never had a cat of my own before, but I am enjoying getting to know the "ins and outs" of cat ownership. I've noticed that my cat, "Fanta" moves her tail a lot depending on her mood. I know that dogs wag when they're happy, do cats do the same? I'd like to know what the tail says about "Fanta's" mood.

Tell Tail Signs

Dear Tell Tail,
First, hooray for you – adopting a cat from a shelter! You just saved a life!

Now about your cat's tail... A cat's tail acts as an extension of its thoughts, an indicator of its mood and as a warning of intention. Although it is not always easy to understand what each movement of the tail means, I can give you some basic guidelines that most have learned from experiences with cats in general.

Broad swishing of the tail indicates annoyance. For example, a cat that decides it's had enough petting will signal you by swishing its tail in impatience. If you continue, your cat may "bat" you with its paw or growl softly. Severely agitated cats will move their tails rapidly back and forth from the base, a clear threatening signal. Generally speaking, the larger and more rapid the swish, the more upset the cat. It is to the cat's advantage to exhibit a visible warning to other cats (and to you), in an effort to avoid direct conflict.

If a cat is afraid or is trying to avoid a confrontation with a dominant cat, its tail will "puff up" or become bristled. It will then lower its tail or tuck it between its legs as a sign of submission. However, if a cat becomes involved in a conflict, it may extend its fully bristled tail straight into the air and turn their body sideways to appear larger. (I’m sure you’ve seen or heard what happens next…) With prey, though, the tails of hunting cats show more subtle movements, explaining to other cats its intention while not warning its victim.

If the tail is raised, but not bristled, that indicates that the cat is being friendly. Twitches (as opposed to swishes) of the tail display excitement and curiosity. If the cat is really excited, as often happens when you come home after a long day at work, or when you open a can of cat food, the upraised tail might begin to twitch with anticipation. The cat will probably next try to "talk" to her owner, or begin rubbing against her owner.

Naturally, there are cats that become agitated without even a hint of tail movement just as there are those that swish their tails rapidly without cause for concern. As you get to know “Fanta” better, you will learn her tail language and will be able to satisfy every need she will surely have.