Why Do Cats Tuck Their Tail?

by Nicholas DeMarino, Demand Media
    Cats use their tails to communicate with other cats and people.

    Cats use their tails to communicate with other cats and people.

    You can tell a lot about your cat by looking at his tail -- and not just what direction he's facing. Cats have voluntary control of their tails, which aid agility and even communication. A tucked or lowered tail is a sign your cat is sick, afraid or submissive.

    Flicks and Flickers

    Ever wonder if your cat's controlling his tail? That mesmerizing swish that goes back and forth and to and fro is all his doing.
    Cats tails have 18 to 23 vertebrae, complete with attached muscles and nerves. They're kind of like hybrid spines and appendages.
    Apart from their roles in hunting and maintaining balance, tails almost always reflect a cat's mood or intentions. A few positions have multiple readings, but cat tail body language is fairly easy to read.

    Tucked, Tuckered or Ticked

    When your cat's tail is tucked between his legs, he's not doing well. He could be sick, afraid or submissive -- maybe even all three.
    A cat squats or sits on his tucked tail when he's ill. His ears or whiskers may droop. If he's purring, he could be in a lot of pain.
    When a cat's afraid, he'll tuck or flatten his tail and roll slightly on his side in a defensive posture. His ears, which go backward when he's afraid, are a dead giveaway.
    A cat that retreats from other cats often lowers his tail or tucks it between his legs as a sign of submissiveness and defeat. He's letting other cats know he's no threat; he may maintain the posture for a spell.

    Other Tales

    Cats, much like humans, are fickle creatures who change their minds a lot, so it's helpful to cue into a few more tail and body language clues.
    If you cat's tail is swishing or twitching, he's excited. Keep an eye on his pupils. When they're as big as saucers, he's in hunting mode, and you might want to stop petting him.
    If your cat's tail is rapidly wagging or thumping, he's angry or agitated. Brace yourself: A fight-or-flight response is coming soon.
    When they're in the middle of a fight, cats tails poof out and stick straight up. It's easy to spot the loser later -- that's the cat with his tail tucked, remember?

    Making Peace

    It's not unusual for cats that live in the same house to fight, but it's unusual for one of them to constantly tuck his tail between his legs.
    If you notice one of your cats is constantly in a submissive posture, make sure he's got enough escape routes and safe spaces to avoid his tormenter. Extra open curtains for sunbathing, additional shelves for high-ground perches, and extra litter boxes can help temper warring territorial cats.
    Additionally, if your cat's tail is limp -- i.e., not tucked, but actually dragging -- he may have a broken tail. This is a serious injury that necessitates an immediate trip to the vet.

    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.

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