Why Do Cats Chase Their Tails?
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM September 19, 2019
It’s three in the morning and your cat is whirling around in a circle fast enough to make even the most seaworthy cat parent a little dizzy. He is chasing after that pesky tail again, and it seems that poor thing never gets a rest. While tail chasing may be cute and a little curious, you wonder if this is normal. For an active little kitten, their tail may look like the ultimate chase toy that is always with them. But for an adult cat, sudden tail chasing may indicate a medical issue. Knowing your cat’s normal behavior is the best way to determine if tail chasing is just something fun for you to watch or a sign of something more serious.
Why Do Cats Chase Their Tails?
For most kittens and young adult cats, tail chasing is a normal playful behavior. Adult cats that chase their tails may be doing so out of boredom. If the behavior starts suddenly, it could be a sign of one of many underlying health issues. Being in tune with your cat will help you sort through the possible causes behind their tail chasing behavior.
Cats display many perplexing behaviors, like leaving dead animals on your front porch! Most of these behaviors have an ancestral backing, but when your cat is performing their own version of a Tilt-A-Whirl, it might be a little more difficult to explain. Let’s look at some reasons why a cat may chase their tail.
Some playful kitties view their tail as a built-in plaything. It’s hard to ever be bored when you always have your tail to chase. Young kittens are especially infatuated with anything that moves, and tails are the perfect snake-like critter on which to pounce. Adult cats may chase their tail for entertainment as well, but by the time they reach a certain age, most are too dignified. For the cats that are too dignified to chase their tail, you can entertain them with a toy to scratch on instead.
Adult fleas love to congregate and bite at the base of your cat’s tail. What you interpret as your cat trying to catch their tail could actually be your cat trying to scratch far down their back where the tail attaches to the body. Fleas will leave other signs that they’re around, such as bumps on your cat’s skin where they have bitten. You may also notice your cat scratching or grooming excessively, and you may see extra ‘dirt’ when you groom your kitty. The most obvious sign is you running across an adult flea or two when you part your cat’s hair down to the skin. Treating fleas on your cat and in your home should stop your cat’s tail chasing behavior if it is due to a flea infestation. If you need more information about cleaning up a flea infestation, then read our article on how to get rid of fleas.
Environmental or food allergies can leave the skin of your cat’s tail and other places itchy and dry. This can have kitties spinning in circles trying to find a great way to reach that itch. Allergies typically don’t present themselves as an itchy tail only. There are usually other signs such as chronic ear infections, rashes, and itchiness in other areas of the body. Allergies can be treated by avoidance of the allergen if it’s known or with antihistamines. In more severe cases, steroids may be necessary to control the itch and prevent further damage from your cat scratching too hard.
Another irritation that may bring on your cat’s increased interest in their tail is an infection. Infections can stem from different sources, including the anal glands, which are located just inside the rectum. Sometimes they are caused by a secondary infection following scratching or an injury to the tail. Infections are best cleared up by treating the underlying cause (like expressing the anal glands) and then with a course of antibiotics.
- Stud tail
This is also known as a supracaudal gland infection which typically occurs in intact male cats. The infection happens due to overactive sebaceous glands that are located at the base of the tail. Sebaceous glands are those that secrete oils that keep your cat’s hair soft. Too much of these oils can lead to a waxy accumulation at the base of the tail that can cause the hair to mat and create an irritating crusty buildup. If severe enough, an infection may occur. Treatment usually consists of neutering the male cat and proper hygiene.
- Hyperesthesia syndrome
This poorly understood but rare disease can affect cats of all ages and is caused by overactive nerve endings. This may lead to a tingling sensation in the tail or your cat being overly sensitive when touched. Cats with this issue may also have episodes similar to panic-like attacks where they run around wide-eyed and crazy for 20 to 30 seconds and then fall back asleep as if nothing happened. Any abnormal behavior should be discussed with your veterinarian.
Is Tail Chasing In Cats A Normal Behavior?
Depending on the situation, a cat chasing their own tail can be absolutely normal. Those kitties that are extra playful or those that are bored from spending the day alone are more prone to tail chasing than others. Tail chasing in kittens is more common than in adults. An adult cat is more likely to continue tail chasing behavior if they did it as a kitten.
When To Be Concerned About a Cat Chasing Their Own Tail
Generally, any sudden change in your cat’s behavior should alert you that something is wrong. An adult cat that has never chased their tail before and suddenly starts doing it should be a red flag that needs to be looked into. Most health issues that cause tail chasing come with other observable signs you should look out for. If your cat suddenly starts to chase their tail, then examine them for fleas, injuries, infections, or anything out of the ordinary. You should also note any other odd behaviors such as a change in affection, appetite, or energy level.
Playful tail chasing is one thing, but if your cat has started chasing and then biting their tail, be on the lookout for self-inflicted injuries and possible infections. Even if your cat’s tail chasing is stemming from a normal behavior, the repercussions of biting could be more serious. Always have injuries or bite wounds to the tail be looked at by a vet.
Why Do Cats Chase Other Cats' Tails?
Playful kitties are attracted to movement whether it be their tail or the tail of a feline roommate. If these kitties are on good terms, one cat may actually try to bait the other in with quick small flicks of the tail. This is all fine as long as both cats are on the same playful page.
Sometimes cats may chase another cat’s tail out of aggression. This can lead to damage. In these instances, take note of both cats' body language during the interaction. Cats that are playing will have their ears perked forward and may bounce around or roll on their side once they ‘catch’ the other’s tail. Aggressive cats will most likely have their ears pinned back, growl or snarl, beat or flick their tail, and be tense all over. Once they pounce, they will be out for blood rather than a playful interaction. For aggressive tail chasing, it’s best to separate cats to avoid injuries. For tips on calming down an angry cat, read our article here.
What Alternatives Can I Provide My Cat to Chase?
If your cat’s tail chasing has become a problem, you can try to break the habit by giving them something else to chase. Wand toys or toys on a string work great for real hands-on playing with your cat. For playing at a distance, a laser pointer may be more in order. If your cat is chasing their tail out of boredom from being home alone all day, then an interactive toy will satisfy that chasing itch without the destruction to your cat’s own body. This goes for cats that chase other cats' tails too. Try to avoid toys that look like snakes or cat tails since you want to get that idea out of their head.
As a cat parent, there’s nothing better than watching your cat do something that they love. For some kitties, spinning in circles wildly until they either catch their own tail or tumble over from dizziness is that one thing they love to do. Tail chasing is always a fun activity for us to watch, but be aware that it’s not always a normal behavior for cats. If your adult cat grew up acting like the Tasmanian Devil, then chances are their tail chasing in adulthood is normal. However, if your cat is suddenly focused on their hind end with undeterred determination, you might want to dig a little deeper for explanations behind this new behavior.