You can tell a lot by looking at your cat's tail -- much more than just which way he's facing. Cats flick, twitch, swish and wiggle their tails to express a range of moods and emotions. Some of these movement are voluntary, but others seem to require little conscious thought.
Cat tails are more complex than meets the eye. Depending on the breed, your cat has 18 to 23 bones in his tail, which is actually an extension of his spine. He controls it with voluntary muscles at the base of his tail. The tail nerves collect in a bundle together with those from his hind legs and rear before they collect into the spinal cord. So, on the one hand, your cat's tail can be articulated with great nuance. On the other hand, it's strongly linked to other movements.
If you've ever watched your cat stalk a bird from a windowsill, you know your friendly feline is actually an accomplished hunter. You also probably know his tail sways back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth when he's in hunting mode. This movement, which starts as a voluntary thought, appears to continue as a primal brain script -- not unlike the way you continue walking as if on autopilot after you take a step or two.
While many of your cat's tail movements signify emotional responses -- a wide wiggle is agitation, a sharp twitch is anger, a raised, wavy tail is happiness -- others are more pragmatic. Your cat uses his tail as a counterweight, just like a tightrope walker uses her pole. It allows him to nimbly jump to seemingly unstable perches and navigate tight, balance beam-thick paths. Such tail movements are, quite clearly, conscious, although there's a twinge of instinct and self-preservation at play, too. After all, don't you push out your arms when you trip and fall down?
Thoughts All Folks!
Cat tails are mood rings. Different wiggles mean different things, whether it's the cat wagging the tail or the tail wagging the cat. Biologically, your cat clearly has the ability to trigger voluntary muscles and make his tail move. Still, once engaged in higher-level thinking, primitive scripts appear to run on their own momentum, or when enacted by surprise events. So does your cat have to think to wiggle his tail? It appears he can do that, but that it requires so little thought that it blurs the line between conscious and unconscious thought.
- The Ohio State University Extension, 4-H: Cat Behaviors
- Catster: 5 Cool Facts You Should Know About Your Cat's Tail
- Healthy Cats Care: Cat Language
- Pets.Ca: Tip 60 -- Cat Wagging Its Tail
- Web MD: Cat Chat -- Understanding Feline Body Language
- Washington State University Extension, 4-H: Cat Anatomy and Physiology
- J. Physiol: Tendon Organ Discharge During Voluntary Movements in Cats
- Michael Blann/Lifesize/Getty Images