Are Cat Tail Movements Voluntary?

Many cat tail movements are voluntary. Others aren't.
i cats image by Maksym Dyachenko from

Cat tails wag. They stick straight up, flick, wave and curl down, too. Most of these movements are voluntary, according to a host of biologists and veterinarians, although others are involuntary. Regardless of whether a cat is wagging its tail or the tail is wagging the cat, cat tail movements are good indication of a cat's mood or motivations.

Cat Tails 101

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A cat tail contains 18 to 23 caudal vertebrae, or tail vertebrae, depending on the breed and individual cat. Tail muscles rest below the lumbar vertebrae, lower-back sacrum and tail vertebrae and attach via tendons. Although this facilitates articulate movements, part of the tail's musculature also is associated with the rectum, anus and pelvic diaphragm.

Caudal muscles are striated and, as such, afford voluntary movement, although some conditions, mental or physical, may cause involuntary movements.

Tail Up

When a cat's tail is up, he or she is probably happy or curious.

In greeting, a cat may arch its back and, in the words of a Washington State University 4-H primer about cat anatomy, "hold its tail stiff and straight, perk its ears, rub its head and muzzle against people and objects--purring its delight to the world."

When a cat's tail is raised but bent or crooked, the animal may be curious or interested in something. Some sources note this may indicate slight irritation or alarm, too.

A relaxed cat's tail curves slightly down then up at the tip.

Tail Down

When a cat's tail is down, he or she is probably upset.

A lowered or tucked tail is "a sign of defeat or total submissiveness," according to an article on This also can be interpreted as a sign the cat is anticipating conflict but doesn't want to engage.

An arched tail, which starts and ends from downward positions, indicates a firm defensive posture, which may indicate the animal is about to make an aggressive action.

Tail Twitching and Swishing

When a cat's tail moves, he or she is getting ready to act.

"A cat wagging its tail is usually a sign of some level of predatory indecision or conflict," according to, a Canadian pet information website.

A fully swishing tail may be meant to distract potential prey, according to and Carey's Cats, a cat question-and-answer website.

Combine these notions and you can interpret tail twitching and swishing as a warning signal a cat is about to make an aggressive move, whether play-fighting or the real thing.

Other Possiblities

When a cat's tail moves, he or she may just be trying keep his or her balance.

Essentially, the cat's tail acts as counterweight, much like a tightrope walker's stick. When a cat turns his or head to one side, for instance, the tail wings the opposite direction to maintain equilibrium, according to an article on Carey's Cats.

Also, a tail held to one side is usually an offer from a female cat in heat to a tomcat.

Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.

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