Do Cats Have to Think to Wiggle Their Tail?

by Nicholas DeMarino, Demand Media
    Cats wear their emotions on their tails, and other cats are wise to take note.

    Cats wear their emotions on their tails, and other cats are wise to take note.

    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.

    Tall Tails

    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.

    Primal Instincts

    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.

    Versatility

    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.

    About the Author

    Nicholas DeMarino is a journalist and former newspaper associate editor and reporter. His work has appeared in "The Arizona Republic," "The Billings Gazette," "San Antonio Current" and in other publications. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.

    Photo Credits

    • Michael Blann/Lifesize/Getty Images