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Why Do Cats Have Tails? 8 Reasons Cats Need Tails

I adore my Siberian cat Alexei’s tail. It is so big and fluffy, and I love how it flicks and sways depending on his mood. So sure, I enjoy his tail, but why do cats have tails? And does he even need one in the first place? I obviously don’t have one, but I have always thought it must be quite fun to have a tail.

Anyway, I digress. From using it for balance and having fun while chasing their tails, here are 8 reasons why cats have tails. I’ve also covered some other key things about cat tails that are worth knowing.

ginger cat with fluffy tail why do cats have tails


Why Cats Have Tails

Why do cats need tails? Well, the answer is, for a variety of reasons, which I’ve listed below.

1. For Balance

While dogs hate cats (and vice versa according to popular culture — which isn’t really true), pups and kitties share some characteristics, including having a tail. The main reason why dogs and cats have tails is that it helps with their sense of balance. This is particularly important when they are walking or running along narrow ledges such as fences or shelves. Their tail is a counterbalance. It also helps them to balance when they are running and when they jump on prey.

siamese cat walking

This counterbalance is also a key factor in why cats always land on their feet (although the rare cats without tails are also able to land on their feet, so this is one that we don’t fully understand yet). This balance also helps cats to get away from potential predators. If you watch your cat, you will see that when it jumps up, its tail goes down. When it swerves to the left, its tail will swerve to the right.

2. To Communicate

Your cat’s tail is a key indicator of its mood. We all know that a wagging tail in a dog generally means it is happy. Here are some of the things that your cat’s tail could be telling you about how they are feeling:

  • A cat is, of course, too cool to wag their cat tails like dogs do, but gentle swishing can be a sign of a happy cat tail.
  • A stiff straight-up tail is a clear sign that your cat is unhappy or frightened.
  • When all the fur on your cat’s tail is on end, and it is at its largest, it is also an indication that your kitty is not pleased.
  • If your cat’s tail is thrashing around, the odds are it is angry.
  • Sometimes cats whack their tail on the ground when they are lying down – this usually means you should leave them alone.
  • A tail that is up in the air and shaped a bit like a question mark is a sign that your cat is in the mood to play. This is also the answer to the common question cat owners ask, “why do cats curl their tail?”. The answer is that it is an indication that they’re happy to be around you or other cats.
  • If the end of your cat’s tail is twitching, this is a sign that they are a bit on edge, and you may want to watch out for potential marking behavior.
  • A tail that is tightly wound around your cat could mean that it is afraid or even unwell – particularly if this is accompanied by them being crouched down.
  • If you haven’t seen your cat for a little while and they greet you with their tail straight up in the air, this generally means that they are in a good mood and ready for some love.
  • A tail that is low to the ground may mean your cat isn’t well or is feeling anxious.
  • When your cat wraps its tail around you, it is their way of saying that they love you. They may also be saying that they are hungry.
  • A quivering tail means your cat is excited to see you – usually, their tail will be up, but the end will do a little shake. This is often accompanied by purring.
  • A cat with its tail between its legs is showing either insecurity, fear, anxiety, or submission to someone or another animal.
ginger tabby with very fluffy tail outside on a lead
Who wouldn’t chase this tail?

All of the above can help you to understand what your cat might be trying to tell you. However, do look at tail behavior in the context of your cat’s overall body language and behavior.

For example, if your cat is fast asleep and in one of the more common cat sleeping positions, it is unlikely that a twitching tail is a sign of irritation – it is more likely that it is dreaming (yes, cats do dream).

3. To Send a Message to Other Cats

If your cat is around other kitties and puts its tail in the air, this is a sign that the other cats are welcome to come and have a good sniff around.

4. To Keep Warm

Have you noticed that often when your cat curls up and has a snooze, they wrap their tail around themselves? This is to keep them warm whilst they nap or sleep.

tabby cat asleep with tail

5. To Get Rid of an Irritation

If there are insects around your cat or a smell that they don’t like (or even a human or other animal they don’t like), they can whack their tail around a bit to try to clear the area of whatever is bothering them.

6. To Understand Their Surroundings

Like whiskers (for the people asking themselves, “why do cats have tails and whiskers?”), tails are also part of a cat’s sense of touch. Its tail can also help it check out its surroundings by feeling surfaces or areas and helping to assess if they are safe or comfortable.

The nerves in a cat’s tail also send signals to a cat’s body to help it to coordinate a response to the environment it is in. This is a key part of your cat’s lightning-quick response system.

grey cat jumps through grass with tail in the air
Now that is a tail

7. To Get Your Attention

Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you are sitting, working, or watching TV, your cat will just stick its tail in your face? This is your kitty’s rather unsubtle indicator that it would like your attention. This may be because they are hungry, or they may want a pat and some cuddles.

8. To Mark Their Territory

In addition to some of the other ways that cats mark their territories, such as urinating, a cat’s tail contains scent glands which are called caudal glands. These are also used when a cat is marking its territory.

tabby cat on a bed with tail raised
Don’t mess with my tail

7 Key Things to Know About Cat Tails

Now that you’ve got the answer to “why do cats have their tail up?” and other related questions, how about learning some other things about a cat’s tail?

1. Cat Tails Contain Nerves

An injury to your cat’s tail can result in permanent damage. The tail is home to many nerves which affect how your cat controls urinating and defecating. Nerve damage can also be caused by pulling on a cat’s tail. This type of damage can heal over time, but it can also end up being permanent.

2. Cats Don’t Have to Have Tails

Do cats need tails? Not really. If a cat loses its tail, it will soon learn to compensate. Manx cats are a breed of cat that are born without tails and don’t seem to have any agility issues relative to other breeds.

manx cat with no tail

3. Domestic vs Wild Cats

When a wild cat is walking, it will either tuck its tail between its legs or hold it horizontally. Domestic cats are the only kitties that have a vertical tail whilst walking.

4. Cats do Control Their Tails

Sometimes a cat’s tail will move in an involuntary action – much like how we often blink without thinking about it. You may notice this in particular when your cat is asleep, and its tail starts twitching. But generally, your cat will be controlling its tail.

Two tabby cats sit in a window sill seen from behind
Tails from behind

5. Should I Touch My Cat’s Tail?

The general answer to this is no. A cat’s tail is quite sensitive due to the number of nerves and muscles within it. It is quite easy to cause your cat some pain without meaning to – particularly if you step on their tail.

Be as gentle as you can when it comes to your kitty’s tail. Some cats actually like having their tail pulled, but your cat might not be one of them.

6. How Long Should a Cat’s Tail Be?

A cat’s tail grows in line with the rest of your cat to aid its balancing needs, so like your kitty, its tail can continue to grow up to the age of two years. Once your cat reaches two, it is unlikely that its tail will continue to grow. A typical full-length cat tail will be between 9 and 11 inches long.

Ginger cat sits on couch with tail between its legs

A cat’s tail contains about 10% of the bones in your kitty’s body, and it is made up of 19 to 23 vertebrae. These vertebrae extend from your cat’s spine but aren’t part of its spinal cord.

Some cats are born with kinked or bobbed tails, and this can affect their ability to balance.

7. Can Cats Break Their Tails?

Cats can definitely injure their tails. These injuries are usually caused by a fall or your cat’s tail getting stuck in a door or being stepped on. Cats that sit on their tails often will also need to be monitored for any self-inflicted injuries. As mentioned earlier, nerve damage can generally be fixed if treated in time but can result in permanent damage to your cat.

Bobtail cat portrait

Final Thoughts on Why Do Cats Have a Tail?

As you can see, there are several answers to the question, “why does a cat have a tail?” A cat’s tail serves different purposes, and with the guide above, you should now know most of them.

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