Oh, The Stories Cat Tails Can Tell

If you are a Jimmy Buffett fan like Suzanne is, you'll immediately recognize the title of this article as a modification of a line from the Buffett song, "Stories We Can Tell". 

One key to understanding the motivation and emotions of animals is their body language.  They express their intentions and motivations through changes in their postures, movements and positions of various body parts.  Among the most expressive body parts of our four-legged friends are their tails.  

In cats, the position and movement of the tail can help indicate mood and intentions.  For example, cats that are fearful tend to hold their tails down and tuck them underneath their legs.  Cats that are agitated and threatening will lash their tails back and forth.  What does it mean when a cat approachs or stands with his tail held straight up? 

It has been thought that the tail up posture was an indicator of friendliness, because cats tend to do it when they approach people in a friendly way.  Recently, Charlotte Cameron-Beaumont has shown that it also functions as a friendly social signal to other cats. 

She observed interactions among feral cats and found that the tail up posture tended to precede other friendly behaviors including sniffing and face rubbing.   To show that it really was the tail position, and

not other things that the cats could be doing that signaled friendliness, she performed an experiment. 

If you want to show that a particular behavior or posture functions as a communicative signal, you have to control all the other things that could influence communication and vary the thing you think is the signal.  To do this, Cameron-Beaumont presented cats with cardboard silhouettes of other cats that either had the tail up vertically or the tail down below the horizontal plane.  Everything else about the cat models was the same. 

She found the cats exposed to the tail up models tended to raise their own tails and approach the silhouette more quickly than cats exposed to the tail down silhouettes.  Cats exposed to the tail up model were also less likely to respond with tail lashing or tucking their tails.  What the tail up posture probably signals is that the cat showing it isn’t a threat to other cats or people and intends to engage in friendly behavior. 

An interesting application of this information involves introducing unfamiliar cats to each other, such as when a family brings home a new cat to join their resident cats.  The initial interactions between cats are very important, and if the cats can be friendly and relaxed, it will reduce stress and make for a smoother introduction.  If both the new cat and the resident cat could be induced to raise their tails at the sight of the other cat, it might facilitate friendly interactions. 

It is certainly possible to train cats to do a variety of things and training cats to raising their tails should be possible.  Using clicker training to teach the cat to raise his tail on cue would be one way to do this.  It may be difficult to get a fearful or threatening cat to raise his tail, because of the way that strong emotions influence behavior, but if the cat isn’t already fearful or threatening, having him show the tail up posture may facilitate further friendly interactions and make the introduction more successful.

Want to know more about cat behavior?  Take our ON DEMAND course "The Peaceable Kingdom: Helping Dogs and Cats Create Safe and Friendly Relationships".  We talk extensively about cat social behavior and how it is different from dogs.  We also completed a Pro Member Only class for our BehaviorEducationNetwork.com (BEN) members on "Cat Behavior and Behavior Problems".

Here's what a few participants had to say:  

"I really appreciated learning about the differences in communication that cats display vs what dogs display as well as learning to appreciate the difference in domestication years and selective breeding in dogs vs cats.  Fran B.

"I truly enjoyed this and look forward to taking more with you."  Cindy B.

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