Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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General Boots, a mixed breed cat, at the Capital Humane Society in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Here’s What Your Cat’s Tail is Trying to Tell You

Experts talk cat behavior—from tail tells, to stealing, to the speedy exits known as “zoomies.”

Cat owners are keenly tuned in to their pets’ body language, but once in a while the felines will throw a curve. Sometimes it’s in their tails.

While watching our cat snooze, we noticed his tail was tapping away like he was enjoying a disco medley we couldn’t hear, sending quite a mixed signal.

So how do you decode a cat’s tail? (Read "Surprising Things You Never Knew About Your Cat.")

Tail Tips

You have to take the whole body into account when reading tail signals, says Carlo Siracusa, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

The napping cat with the tapping tail, for example, is “relaxed overall but paying attention to something happening around him, a sound or movement,” so he’s peaceful but hardly asleep on the job.

If he really is sleeping, Siracusa adds, a moving tail could mean he’s dreaming. (Related: "Do Animals Dream?")

A whipping tale on an alert cat can mean nervousness, potential aggression, and “Do not touch!” says Siracusa.

On a calm cat a straight-up tail with a hooked tip is a friendly greeting, while an aggressive cat may just have its tail straight up. A fearful “Halloween” cat will have an arched back and “its tail up and puffed.”

View Images

A domestic cat seems less than thrilled during a studio photoshoot.

A downward curve can mean defensiveness, says Siracusa, while a relaxed cat will “carry his tail in a neutral or low position.”

House Hunting

Their tails might be confusing, but cats’ feet never lie.

Katy Prudic, an entomologist at the University of Arizona, has helped us out many a time but now she has a question of her own, proving cats are puzzling even to scientists. (See "Why Cats Poop on Your Bed and Other Odd Pet Behaviors.")

“Why do cats suddenly decide they are late for an appointment in another room?” she asks, about those times your cat suddenly bolts, leaving you wondering, “Was it something I said?”

The Science of Meow: Study to Look at How Cats Talk

These bursts of energy, sometimes called “the zoomies,” are “probably outlets for accumulated arousal,” frustration, fear, or pent-up energy, says Siracusa.

Cats “need a lot of stimulation and enrichment,” and would be climbing trees and chasing prey if they were outside. Our homes are safer but not very stimulating, or the stimulation may not be pleasant—like being chased by children.

Cats are hunters and “speed merchants,” says Nick Dodman, author of The Cat Who Cried for Help.

Both experts agree that these bursts of speed could be pent-up energy that might have been used for catching prey in the wild.

Cats are also crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. The rest of the time they sleep or doze, storing up energy to confuse you with.

Klepto Cat?

Or he could be on the run from the law.

Reader Helen Farmer Kowalchuk is the owner of a literal cat burglar. Her tuxedo cat pinches socks, jewelry, business cards, “anything he can carry,” she says, from “purses, closets and dressers,” when the family is gone or “when he thinks we’re gone.” (Related: Why Cats Poop On Your Bed and Other Odd Behaviors)

Kowalchuk certainly isn’t alone in having a cat with sticky paws. The internet is full of stories of felonious felines from England to California to Australia.

Some cats have retriever instincts, like dogs, says Dodman, but like the sudden burst of energy, stealing may be an expression of instinct of a hunter with nothing to hunt. These cats may be “going through the motions,” and bringing back a “prey facsimile,” to their territory, often near their food bowls.

Females bring prey back to provision or teach kittens but males do this kind of thieving as well.

There is also a selectively bred cat called a Munchkin, which is nicknamed “magpie cat” because the breed is predisposed to swiping shiny objects and caching them for later, says Dodman.

We feel lucky. The only things we’ve ever had stolen by a cat are our hearts.

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