Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails? 12 Reasons

Are you wondering why your cat's tail is so active? There are quite a few reasons cats twitch and wag their tails. Tails are a big communication tool for felines. I discuss why cats wag their tails, and what the different positions mean.

Danielle DeGroot

Last Updated: March 18, 2024 | 8 min read

Cat with tail wagging and curled up.

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As a longtime cat owner, I know that cats wag their tails for a variety of reasons. While this behavior is more widely associated with dogs, cats are actually highly active and quite expressive of how they are feeling with their tails.

Cats communicate with us primarily through body language. Wagging their tails is a perfect example. Most of the time, this is not something to worry about, but it is helpful to understand the meaning behind your cat’s behavior.

Paying close attention to your pet is essential. Our fur babies often engage in odd and sometimes even concerning behavior. They are also all individuals, so you need to decipher your kitty’s different behaviors, body language, and signals to understand when they try to communicate. Let’s get into it and learn more about the different reasons your cat is swishing and wagging her tail.

What Does It Mean When A Cat Wags Their Tail?

Curved tail while eating.
My cat Twilight curls her tail as she eats.

Understanding and deciphering feline body language can be challenging. Felines do not always share their feelings or needs with us in an obvious way. Tail wagging is easy to misinterpret or even ignore, but it is an important indicator of how your cat is feeling. Your kitty may be happy, content, paying, anxious, annoyed, angry, focused, or, in rare cases, in pain or hurt. Felines do not usually engage in rapid wagging like dogs. Feline tail movements are often a swishing, licking, twitching, or quivering action.

12 Reasons Cats Wag Their Tails

12 Reasons why cats wag their tails infographic.

Below, I explain some common reasons why cats wag their tails and what the various positions and movements mean. Let me help you understand the hidden meaning behind your cat’s swishing or twitching back end.

1. Affection And Happiness

Cat playful and content laying on back.
My cat Zaphod is showing happiness during playtime with a curvy, swishing tail.

Affection is a common reason your cat may start wagging her tail. Often, this involves her swishing it gently and even brushing it against you. Some kitties like to gently wrap their tail around your arm, leg, foot, hand, or even your face in a show of affection. This kind of gentle swaying and wagging indicates your kitty is showing her love for you.

Felines often also show happiness through physical movement. Gentle wags and twitching can signify that your cat feels happy, content, and safe. If the wagging happens when you are petting, brushing, or playing, it is likely a sign that they’re happy with what is happening. Soft, slow wags signify a happy, content kitty.

Sometimes, your kitty may wag her tail as a greeting, letting you know they are happy to see you. This type of movement is gentle, upright, and soft, swaying back and forth.

2. Playing

Cat playing with a toy.
Zaphod’s pointed tail at full attention while playing with a feather wand.

Our fur babies often feel playful, and felines adore interactive playtime. I know that my cats’ favorite time of day is those 15-minute play sessions with the feather wand toy. As soon as I get it out, those tails start moving in anticipation of the fun they are about to have.

Playful wagging isn’t super aggressive and often involves rapid side-to-side swishing. Sometimes, they might be lowered to the ground and flick back and forth. A jump or pounce frequently follows playful wagging. Playful felines will also have ears pointing slightly forward and dilated pupils.

3. Interaction And Excitement

Just like us, felines get excited and show that in a physical way. While we might jump up and down or dance excitedly, felines quiver and shake their tails. It can happen when they are happy to see us, smell a new treat, or during playtime. Often, it will be held high and straight behind them, and the tip will start to quiver.

4. Hunting

Cat hunting with tail curled.
Zaphod inspects his prey: a catnip-filled mouse.

A kitty on the hunt twitches their tail quickly from side to side. This action is not constant. It is intermittent as they wait for just the right moment to pounce. You might also notice this movement during play, especially if you use a toy your kitty can chase and catch.

5. Dreaming

Cats experience dreaming when sleeping, and you may observe physical movement. Sometimes, the movement involves body shifting, ears twitching, or a wag or twitch of the tail. Twitching does not mean your kitty is having a nightmare or bad dream. It is more likely an indication that they are dreaming of movement or something that makes them excited, like hunting down prey, playing, or being given cuddles.

6. Highly Focused

Cat focused with tail up.
The quick, short movement and straight tail indicate deep focus.

Felines have highly tuned senses, with more powerful vision and senses of smell than we have. Felines also have excellent hearing, so things we cannot see or hear can grab their attention. You might witness a short, quick twitch back and forth of the tail when they’re intently focused on looking out the window or have cornered a bug or other tiny intruder inside. These short twitches will often be accompanied by vocalization, such as a chatter or chirp.

I have often seen my cat’s tails quiver out of excitement. Sometimes, this will be with straight tails, but it also can happen when bent, and the quivering will be at the base.

7. Unhappy Or Angry

Not all feline tail wagging indicates something positive. Our feline friends can also feel unhappiness and anger. They may communicate that through this movement. I certainly have experienced a cat being overstimulated by petting and swiping at me with their paw. A twitching tail is often an indication that there is something they do not like going on. Visible, aggressive wagging is unusual and means your cat is angry.

8. Fear

Sometimes, tail movement is a defensive sign, such as when a cat is scared. Agitated swaying, with some twitching mixed in, is a sign of fear. If you notice your kitty’s back end at a very low position, this can indicate they are frightened. They may crouch low to the ground with their ears pinned back. In a moment of extreme fear, kitties can even tuck their full tails all the way between their legs.

9. Annoyed Or Anxious

Felines often shake, quiver, or vibrate their tails when annoyed, anxious, or agitated. One of my purr babies, Twilight, gets annoyed more easily than her brother, Zaphod. One thing in particular that annoys Twilight is loud noises and other animals coming into her space. When this happens, she will come up to me, rub on my legs, and quiver her tail. It is usually bent over sideways and quivers at the base all the way to the tip.

10. Danger

If a cat senses actual danger, they will communicate this with their tail. You may notice it appears to be very fluffy and puffed up. Puffing up is how they make themselves look larger, and often happens before a confrontation. It may be with another cat, a dog, a strange person, or something they’re frightened of. When I run the vacuum, my kitties often puff up their long tails. They do not like the noise, the unpredictable movements, or the light that comes from it.

11. Territorial

A kitty with a quivering tail held upright in a fixed position may be showing other animals and people to stay away. They may act territorial if they feel like someone or something is infringing on their safe space. Sometimes, a quivering, upright back end may be a precursor to spraying urine.

12. Discomfort Or Pain

In some cases, wagging and swaying may indicate discomfort or pain. If you notice your kitty’s tail wagging while lying down and not asleep, this may indicate that they aren’t feeling well. Tail wags, hiding, or avoiding touch suggests something is wrong. It is worth having your pet checked out if this happens more than an occasional time or two. Even if you haven’t witnessed an injury, there is a possibility they may have gotten stuck, bumped into something, or otherwise have some cause of internal pain.

Wagging the tail to one side, carrying the trial in an odd position, an off-balance gait, a limp or droopy tai, trouble moving, licking or biting at it, bleeding, and unusual vocalization can all indicate an injury.

Video Of Reasons Why Cats Wag Their Tails

Check out this cute video of our cats wagging their tails in action.

My Personal Experience With A Kitty’s Broken Tail

My cat, Snowflake, experienced a broken tail. The injury occurred when he got out and ran across the street. There was a dog he liked visiting in the home directly in front of us, and Snowflake was exceptionally good at sneaking out. When he first broke his tail, I noticed it folded over at an odd angle, with some twitching. It was very painful, and he would not let me near it. He required x-rays and a cast to immobilize him for it to heal. After he recovered, he still had some odd positions and flicking and never regained full movement.

Understanding Your Cat’s Tail Positions

There are a few things to look for if you are trying to decipher your kitty’s tail movement. These include three primary areas: position, type of movement, and body language and position.

10 Telling Cat Tail Positions

Cat in hunting mode with tail pointed.
Zaphod’s tail is in a horizontal, neutral position as he focuses on a laser pointer spot.
  1. Upright: A tall, standing, straight-up position signifies a kitty is happy, feeling social, confident, and trusting.
  2. Question Mark: Seeing your kitty’s rear end making a question mark indicates a happy, playful mood. It is also often seen when felines are greeting each other.
  3. Flicking Or Swishing: Swishing or flicking from side to side can mean excitement, nervousness, focus, or, in rare cases, indicate pain.
  4. Tapping: Tapping, often involving just the tip of a kitty’s tail, indicates frustration or annoyance.
  5. Puffy: Puffy kitty tails, accompanied by an arched back, means your purr baby is surprised or startled. Often, this indicates that a kitty is scared or feels in danger.
  6. Wrapped: Your kitty’s tail wrapped around you or dragged over your face is a sign of affection and trust. Think of it as your cat holding your hand.
  7. Shuddering Or Quivering: Quivering or shuddering can indicate anxiety, excitement, stress, or insecurity.
  8. Lowered: A lowered position, close to the ground, means they may feel unsure or afraid.
  9. Rigid Or Pointed: This indicates a hunting position, especially when the cat crouches. They are focused and getting ready to attack.
  10. Tucked: A tucked position often indicates something is wrong. Your kitty may be afraid, uncomfortable, or in pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

Cat confidently walking.
A fully upright tail indicates a cat is confident.

Purr parents have quite a few questions about cats and tail wagging. I will cover some of the more often asked ones below. If I missed yours, let me know in the comments.

Are cats happy when they wag their tails?

Yes, they can be. A cat with a confident tail position and slow movement signals a sense of calmness and happiness.

Why do cats wag their tails while lying down?

Often, this means they’re looking for some interaction. They may want to play, especially if they look at you or make eye contact.

Is my cat thumping her tail when I pet her a normal thing?

It is likely an indication that she wants some space or may be overstimulated by touch if she starts thumping her tail while you are petting her.

Why do cats wag their tails while sleeping?

This is called a sleep twitch and is a sign your kitty is reliving an exciting part of the day while asleep. It’s often a sign they feel safe. Tails may also twitch a little while in deep sleep, the same way our legs or other muscles can twitch when we are sleeping.

Understanding Feline Behavior And Body Language

Cats cannot speak to us in the same way we talk with one another, but they are excellent communicators. They communicate vocally but primarily through body language and behavior. For example, rubbing your feet or licking your face is more than just quirky kitty behavior. These are clues to how your furball feels. Understanding these clues helps us pet parents be more in tune with our fur babies’ needs. If you wonder how cats feel about our voices, I’ve covered that here. You can also learn more about if cats get lonely and what it means when they hiss.

Why Trust Love Your Cat

Danielle is a lifelong cat owner. She has raised cats with special needs, including a deaf kitty and those with kidney issues. Danielle is dedicated to helping animals in need. Every cat she has ever owned is a rescue kitty. Danielle is also a dedicated and skilled researcher with over a decade of experience. She works tirelessly to stay on top of the latest science-backed research, developments, and trends in pet care, health, training, food, and products. Danielle works alongside a talented and dedicated team to provide pet owners with valuable information to better their lives.

Black and white cat hissing.

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