Do Cats Control Their Tails?


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You could probably compare a cat’s tail to a cobra that is slowly emerging from within a basket. It bends, curls on command, or stands straight and still, which can make one wonder, does a cat’s tail move of its own accord, or is there a mastermind behind it?

Do cats control their tails? Cats have control over their tail’s movement because it’s an extension of their spine. They mostly use their tail consciously for balance adjustment and to communicate their emotions through tail gestures and position, while involuntary tail movements can be caused by mental or physical conditions.

If you want to become an expert in tail anatomy and movement and most importantly find out how our cats control their tails, then all you have to do is keep on reading!

Do Cats Control Their Tails?

Since we don’t have a tail, it can be difficult to understand how that body part works and its actual purpose. Sure, we might have seen monkeys use their tail for climbing a tree or dangling from it, but the soft and flexible cat tail doesn’t really work like that and is far more mysterious.

According to Scientific Reports, “the animal tail is an important appendage to the torso and plays adaptive roles in locomotion, balance, communication, thermoregulation and even energy storage.” No matter how puzzled we might be by the ever-shifting kitty tail, we can rest assured that the tail isn’t a decorative body part and that our feline companions are fully aware of their tail, and they do have control over its movements.

Moreso, our feline companions have complete control over their entire tail, managing to flick and curl even the very end of their tail. So, when you try to touch your cat’s tail and it slips through your finger the motion might seem unconscious, but it’s more often than not deliberate.

How Do Cats Control Their Tails?

Finding out that cats can manipulate their tail as they please might be enough for some, but I’m sure many of us would like to take a closer look at how they achieve such control. To understand how they do it we need to take a closer look at their tail’s mechanics.

Cat Tail Anatomy

If we were to mentally dissect a cat’s tail with superman’s X-Ray vision, we would see that it’s an extension of their spine and not just a separate body part. The tail is made of series of small bones, that get progressively smaller as they reach the tip of the tail and they’re the same type of bones that make up the spinal column called vertebrae.

Similarly, to us, these bones are attached and held together by ligaments, tendons, and 6 distinct muscles. This is a complex system and all these small parts work perfectly together to provide their tail its amazing mobility and flexibility.

Apart from bones and connective tissue what brings the cat’s tail to life is the fact that it’s part of the nervous system which includes the spinal cord and the brain. Thomas Schubert, DVM, states that “the spinal nerves arise from the spinal cord and extend axons outward into the front and hind legs and to the bladder, anus, and tail.”

This means that every inch of a cat’s tail is specifically designed to be controlled and moved by their nifty little brains!

Can Cats Feel Their Tails?

The tail might seem like a detached and autonomous body part, nonetheless, it’s under the cat’s jurisdiction, and it’s extremely sensitive. When the tail comes in contact with an object, or there’s a change in temperature the nerve receptors take in the information, in fact, billions of cells known as neurons are responsible for carrying information from the body, to the brain stem and Thomas Schubert explains that this kind of sensory information includes “sensations of pain, position, touch, temperature, taste, hearing, balance, vision, and smell.”

While the complex internal anatomy and the nervous system are responsible for letting the cat know what their tail is feeling, the skin and even the hair follicles are also sensitive to the touch, and temperature change. In other words, cats do feel their tail, they will feel pain if someone steps on it, and some cats might even react badly to simply having their tail touched, even if it’s their own kitten!

Just look at this patient mama cat that moves her tail playfully at the delight of her kitten, well at least for a minute!

It’s important to note that if you find your kitty being particularly sensitive about their tail, then you might need to consult with your vet to see if they feel discomfort due to an injury.

Why Do Cats Have Tails?

Being the tailless creatures that we are, it might be difficult to see the value in having one, but for cats, a tail is a major advantage. Through intentional and unintentional tail movements this tool helps them become great hunters, elude other predators, and communicate with the animals around them.

Voluntary Tail Movement

When we’re talking about voluntary movement, we’re talking about intentional tail movements that happen when the cat is conscious. It might be a command coming from the brain and traveling along the spinal cord, or it could be a reaction to the environment.

To Retain Balance

Cats rely on and use their tail to balance, and according to Behavioral Brain Research, “the tail was observed to move during upward and downward jumps.” Similarly, in order to retain balance, when a cat was walking on unstable surfaces, the tail moved in the opposite direction to prevent the cat from falling.

Not only does the tail serves as a counterbalance but in case a cat did end up falling or jumping Dr. Cottrell, DVM states that “Their flexible backs and lack of a true collarbone helps them turn, so they’re in a position to land on their feet.” Most importantly she adds that “the tail helps realign their legs and body as they fall, keeping the cat level.”

Cats become masters of this “righting reflex” by the time they’re 7 weeks old, thanks to their vestibular apparatus, a balance system located in the inner ear that helps them determine up from down, and of course the rotation of their body and their tail!

To Improve Speed

If you think your cat’s ability to adjust their balance by rotating their tail to realign their hips and legs, is amazing well there’s definitely more!

Dr. David Young, a Zoologist explains that “tails in mammals often serve as a counterbalance to the head and assist an animal in movement, especially running. If you look at wild cats, ones that run very fast have longer tails.

Our cats can run at an amazing speed and the Egyptian Mau is considered to be the fastest cat attaining speeds up to 48 km/h, so they can definitely outrun humans. This speed isn’t only achieved by the breed’s muscular hind legs, but their tail is also an important part of the equation.

To Communicate

While balance and speed are crucial for a cat’s ability to hunt down and catch their prey, as well as get away from dangerous predators, their tail is also a communication tool, which they use quite consciously with other animals, and especially cats. For most of their existence, cats weren’t solitary animals, instead, they formed colonies, so figuring out a way to communicate their mood to one another was important. A study showed that “in the domestic cat, the tail up can be also observed when an adult individual meets another one and it signals the intention to interact amicably.”

Similarly, we also use more than just language to communicate with other humans, we also rely on hand gestures and our facial expressions to convey our feelings. Interestingly enough our cats have learned to meow for our sake only, but they also use their tails to communicate with us. A tail held up in the air can be a sign of happiness or anger, while a swaying tail can be translated into curiosity or agitation, and if we don’t look closely enough we might not notice these small nuances and the complexity of this universal kitty language.

These tail motions can be subtle or unfamiliar to many of us, so it’s likely that we misinterpret our kitties and their tails and get in trouble!

Involuntary Tail Movement

Our feline companions are capable of controlling their tails, they even use it to make their feelings clear to us, but there are moments when their tail is moving less intentionally. Involuntary tail movements usually happen when they’re inactive during sleep, it could be an unintended reflex or a sign of an underlying condition.

During Dreaming

If you catch your cat laying around with their eyes closed and their tail swaying, they might not be sleeping but simply having a lazy day, they also might’ve heard you come or call their name and the motion of their tail was a way of letting you know that they’re aware of your presence, but then again they could also well asleep and dreaming,

A study done by the Claude-Bernard University showed that cats can display an “oneiric behavior” meaning that they can experience dreams and another study on Physiology & Behavior explained that during deep REMs sleep cats can be observed to have generalized body movements.

These kinds of movements are similar to when we move around in response to a bad dream, or our leg suddenly twitches in our sleep, and they’re unintentional. So, next time you notice your cat’s tail move, their ear flick, or their hind legs twitch, then they’re probably on a hunt in the land of dreams!

Reaction To The Environment

A tail movement could also be a reflex, which is an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus. If you’ve ever touched something extremely hot your brain would instantly make the decision to move your hands away from this object. In a similar fashion, the research on Behavioral Brain Research suggests a kitten would respond “reflexively to mechanical, thermal and electrical cutaneous stimulations. These responses are comparable to flexion and withdrawal reflexes of the limbs and likely evolved to protect the tail from damage.”

This involuntary motion can be especially difficult to detect since the follow-up movement of our cat’s tail might be intentional, but it definitely happens.

Medical Condition

While most of the above instances in which we find our cats moving their tails are harmless, this doesn’t mean we don’t need to pay attention to their tails.

Injuries to the spine or to the tail itself can of course affect the numerous nerves running through this complex system and result in muscle spasms. In this case, you might see your cat wag their tail involuntarily, and the twitching might seem unnatural.

According to Daniel D. Smeak, DVM, traumatic injury of that area can cause tail dysfunction. Your cat might suddenly jerk reflex because of a skin parasite, or hyperesthesia, which is an extreme sensitivity of a cat’s skin, usually in the area right in front of the tail. So, if you notice your cat’s tail move persistently for no apparent reason, or not move at all, and if they also feel uncomfortable when you touch their tail, then consider taking them to the vet for a checkup.

How Cats Move Their Tails To Communicate?

Cats use their overall body to communicate their feelings and their intentions, and their tails are the most expressive tool they use to convey their state.

Tail Position

Cats might not constantly move their tails, but even the way they position their tail shows us that they do have control over this body part. Whenever I call my cat from the kitchen, and he hears the can of goodies pop open he runs to me with his tail standing up in a straight line as if he’s about to high-five me, and in a sense that’s exactly what they want to show us, their excitement!

While an erect tail with flat fur is the trademark of a happy kitty, an arched back and tail with the fur standing up are the trademark of an angry or frightened cat. If you’ve ever seen a scared cat then you probably noticed that they keep their tail tucked between their legs, but a low tail on an overall relaxed cat could simply be a sign of shy curiosity.

Tail Movement

The position of your cat’s tail is important because it gives you a sense of their mood, but the movement also could help you get a clearer picture. For example, if you start talking to your kitty you might notice them wagging their tail, they might do it as they lay around the house lazily or as they walk up to you to see what the fuss is all about. If on the other hand, they start whipping or thumping their tail while you’re petting them or playing with them, then it’s most likely a warning that tells you that they need you to stop.

Don’t forget to pay attention to the speed of the movement, and what part of the tail is most active. When cats are excited or in heat, they quiver their tail as they’re getting ready to spray. You might notice your kitty chirping, wiggle their butt, or wag their tail while spying on a bird from the comfort of their house, just like this ginger kitty!

Your cat’s tail can have a multitude of different motions, changing from one movement to another depending on their mood and the situation, but with time most cat parents begin to see the meaning behind each swish and twitch, something I’m sure most of our kitties appreciate!

Does A Cat’s Tail Grow As They Age?

Most cats reach adulthood at 12 months old, but some cats might need more time to reach their full size, especially large breeds like the Maine Coon which usually reaches adulthood between 18 months to 4 years of age. When it comes to their tail, it too continues to grow and develop as they grow, reaching its full potential as the cat becomes a full-grown adult. The average size of a domestic cat’s tail is 12 inches long, which is more than half the length of their entire body, and most cats also have around 250 bones in their body, and 10% of these bones are in the tail alone.

There are of course different breeds and the potential size and number of bones in their tails depend on their genetics. For instance, a silver Maine Coon named Cygnus Regulus Powers has a tail that measures 17.58 inches (44.66 cm) which is quite impressive and according to the owners, they have to be extra careful when they walk around the house or when they’re about to close the door, in order to protect this long-tailed specimen.

Can Cats Live Without Tails?

There are different two reasons why a cat doesn’t have a tail, they were either born this way or they lost their tail sometime during their life.

Tailless Breeds

While a breed without a tail might sound absurd to some these unique feline companions do exist. On the Isle of Man in Britain, there is a cat called the Manx which according to Veterinary Pathology, doesn’t have a tail because of a genetic mutation or a congenital defect in the spinal cord. Short-tailed domestic cats are also common in Southeast Asia and Southern China and despite this deformity, these cats have no problem surviving and reproducing. Even the people who own the Manx Cats support the fact that these cats are still healthy and functioning.

So, while the tail plays a vital role in a cat’s balance cats that were born with short tails or completely without them never even had to adapt to a life without them because they were born into a different reality.

Losing The Tail

When we’re talking about a cat that has lost their tail due to an injury it can be a different story. As I’ve mentioned above, the tail is part of the nervous system, and not only do these nerves control its movement, but also functions related to the bladder, hind legs, and intestine. So, when a cat injures or loses their tail, the main concern would be, how bad was the damage and which area was affected most.

Nerve damage at the base of the tail from avulsion injuries which are usually “caused when the tail is pulled strenuously” might have serious implications to your cat’s overall health, and your cat could have a bad time controlling their urination and having issues with defecating. If the tail was fractured, meaning that the tail bones were crushed then a possible outcome would be to amputate the tail, which might simply mean that your cat won’t have a tail anymore, and if they’re lucky this won’t affect their basic functions.

I want to note that while there can be serious implications when it comes to tail injuries this doesn’t mean that our cats can’t adapt to a life without a tail. It might take them some time to get accustomed to a lack of tail, their balance might be off at the very beginning, but living a full and healthy life without a tail is possible. After all our feline overlords are resilient warriors!

What Should I Do If My Cat Isn’t Moving Their Tail?

Most cats spend their lives relying on their tails and moving them according to their jumps and feelings, so if you notice the sudden movement stop it should be enough to concern you. Since cats are great at hiding their pain, they might not show any other signs of discomfort apart from the sudden immobility of their tail.

“Because the spinal cord ends so high up, nerves exiting the cord to provide control and sensation to the tail, hind legs, urinary bladder, large intestine, and anus must extend long branches to reach their destination,” veterinarians state, which means that there is a multitude of neurons running through a cat’s spinal cord all the way to the tip of their tail, thus a neurological disorder could be responsible for the sudden stillness of your cat’s tail.

It could be the result of an injury you might be aware like accidentally stepping on their tail, or it could be the result of a street catfight. Such injuries could paralyze their tail altogether or your cat’s pain and discomfort could be the one that’s minimizing the movement.

As a result of an injured or fractured tail, you might notice that your feline companion is less active, more reclusive, and they might be walking differently. If you notice your kitty not moving their tail at all then you should take them to the vet as soon as possible! Not dealing with such symptoms immediately might lead to permanent damage and even amputation of the tail. Early diagnosis can help treat minor injuries and deal with serious conditions like tumors or nerve damage.

Closing Thoughts

It can feel like a slap in the face when our cats pull their tail out of our grasp, some might even get up and leave, but as cat parents, we need to understand that even though this tail movement is intentional it’s not something personal. Their tail makes sure that they always land on their four feet and since it’s so sensitive and vulnerable it only makes sense that they don’t trust their tail with anyone but themselves!

Now tell us, do you understand your cat’s language or do you have more cat tail questions that need to be answered?

Marina Titova

Marina was cat-struck 8 years ago. It was early autumn when Dante, her grey cat, found her and adopted her. They’ve been inseparable ever since. Dante has been a great cat-teacher and BetterWithCats.net seemed like the perfect place to share his cat-knowledge.

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