Why Do Cats Have Tails?
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley September 03, 2019
Cats are very expressive with their tails and many cat parents learn to read their cat’s mood based on how they hold their tail. Cats may also regularly use their tails to get our attention by rubbing it against our legs when they want pets or food. Some cats may even be so bold to stick their tail in your face while you are on your phone or trying to sleep. Others may be aloof and accidentally stick their tail in your coffee or food. There are many joys and annoyances that come with dealing with your cat’s tail, but tails serve important purposes for cats. In this article, we will learn more about the cat tail, what it is used for, and what it is made of.
Why Do Cats Have Tails?
Cat tails are important for a number of reasons. Cats use their tails for cat to cat communication, cat to human communication, and most importantly - for balance and agility as they hunt for prey and evade predators.
Cats use their tails for a variety of purposes. Their tails are powered by a number of different anatomical features. Tails are part of the cat’s spinal cord, and they contain important elements such as vertebrae, nerves, blood vessels, muscles, and scent glands.
What Is A Cat’s Tail Made Of?
The bones in a cat’s tail are known as caudal vertebrae. Cats typically have 18-23 caudal vertebrae (WSU-E, 2008). Cats with no tails, such as the Manx cats, or cats with shorter tails, will have fewer caudal vertebrae. Even humans, who do not have a tail, have 3-5 caudal vertebrae. Our caudal vertebrae are fused together and form one bone, the coccyx, which helps stabilize us when we sit. Other ape species, like gorillas and chimpanzees have this bone as well.
Other vertebrae help the tail to function. Cats have the same number of cervical vertebrae as most other mammals, but they have an additional vertebra in the thoracic region and two more vertebras in the lumbar region than humans. The extra vertebrae give cats increased flexibility in their spine and helps them with their speed and agility. The tail is a crucial part of these skills.
Nerves run throughout a cat’s tail, which helps them pick up information from the environment around them, essentially allowing them to “feel” with their tail. The tail is part of a cat’s spinal cord and contains nerves from both the central and sympathetic nervous system. Nerves send signals throughout the body to help the body coordinate a response to the environment. These nerves send information from a cat’s tail all the way up to its brain, allowing the cat to respond to whatever is happening around them in a split second.
Muscles are also an important anatomical feature of tails as they help with tail movement. The muscle that is primarily responsible for tail movement is the Sarcocaudalis muscle. Whenever your cat moves its tail into a different position, this muscle is at work.
The tail also contains blood vessels and a tail vein that help with the circulatory system. The tail vein of a cat can be used to draw blood. Did you know that some zoological facilities trail their big cats, like lions and tigers, to voluntarily present their tails to their keeper for blood draws? They do this using positive reinforcement-based training!
A cat’s tail also contains scent glands, called caudal glands. These aid cats in scent marking their territory (Brown & Bradshaw, 2013).
Do Cats Have Control Over Their Tails?
Yes, cats do have control over their tails. They can voluntarily use their tails to communicate with humans and other cats, as well as to aid their movements. Cats can hold their tails up high or pull it down between their legs. Cats can also swish their tails from side to side. Cats can move the tip of their tail independently from the rest of the tail, which adds to the nuance of how they communicate with it. However, there are animals in this world that have even more control over their tails. These tails are known as prehensile tails, and they act as an additional appendage. Animals can use their prehensile tails to grasp items in their environment, such as using it to climb around trees.
Do Cats' Tails Grow As They Age?
A cat's tail does grow as the cat ages. However, after the cat is full grown, the tail remains the same size. Cats can keep growing up to 2 years of age, which means their tail can continue to grow with them. However, cats are born with the number of vertebrae they need, so the tail growing has more to do with anatomical development rather than growing more bones.
How Long Is A Cat’s Tail?
If a cat has a full-length tail, it will typically be anywhere between 9 and 11 inches long. Cat tail length is typically related to the overall size of the cat since they use their tail to stabilize their body when running and jumping. Some cat breed associations may judge a cat based on the length of its tail relative to its body length and specify that a cat’s tail length should be equal to the body length of the cat.
What Do Cats Use Their Tails For?
Cats use their tail for balance and agility, which they need when hunting prey, and climbing and jumping through trees. The tail helps to counterbalance the body of the cat. The anatomy of their spine and tail gives them a lot of power and flexibility, allowing them to make quick changes to their body orientation and direction. This helps them respond to the reaction of their prey or to jump out of the dangerous grab of animals hunting them. If you have ever seen videos of snow leopards or cheetahs hunting, you will notice how their tail moves behind them in response to their movements. It is quite incredible.
Cats also use their tail for communication with other cats and humans. The position and movement of a cat’s tail can tell you a lot about how they are feeling:
- Tail up
Cats that are feeling confident and social will hold their tail upright, sometimes with a little hook at the tip of the tail. Cats who are anticipating being fed may also hold their tail up. Cats who hold their tail up when meeting other cats are welcoming contact with the other cat (Springer, 2008; Brown & Bradshaw, 2013).
- Tail down
Cats that are nervous or aroused may hold their tail low between their legs, and the tail may be rigid or may have a flick at the end. This tail position may be accompanied with the cat walking low across the ground as they try to find a hiding spot. A normal, unaroused cat may walk with their tail in a down position, but the tail will be loose and relaxed behind them.
- Tail quiver
When cats greet their owners, they may approach them with an upright tail and quiver it near you. This is a sign of positive arousal. For unneutered cats, this tail position may be paired with scent marking and may be related to territorial defense and/or reproductive behavior (Springer, 2008; Brown & Bradshaw, 2013).
- Tail flicking
Cats that are feeling playful or positively aroused may flick the end of their tail quickly (Springer, 2008).
- Tail thrashing
A cat who is thrashing their tail dramatically from side to side is angry or scared. The tail will be held low and tight. This tail movement may also be paired with rigid body language and hard staring eyes. Cats displaying these behaviors are likely to act aggressively (Springer, 2008). There are some things you can do to try to calm an angry or scared cat. But if you see this behavior, it's best to remove yourself or other animals from the situation immediately.
Do All Cats Have Tails?
No, not all cats have tails. Some cats are born without a tail and some cats may suffer an injury to their tail that requires their tail to be amputated. Manx cat breeds are naturally born without a tail, similar to bobcats and lynxes. A certain gene is responsible for the bob tail seen in Manx cats (CFA) and other animals.
What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Having A Tail?
While a tail is very useful to a cat, cats without tails learn to adapt easily to a tailless life. Cats without a tail are not restricted in any way. Even cats who have a tail and lose it due to injury learn to adapt quickly to life without a tail.
Tails have evolved in many different groups of animals and serve important purposes. Cats are one of the many animals that have benefited from having a tail. Tails are filled with bones, nerves, blood, muscles, and scent glands. All of these anatomical features work together to provide cats the ability to balance, navigate quickly and efficiently, and communicate with the world around them. The way a cat holds their tail can tell you a lot about its intentions and mood. Cat owners should quickly learn the nuances of cat communication as this will set you and your cat up for success.
Brown, S.L., and J.W.S. Bradshaw. 2013. Communication in the domestic cat: within- and between-species. In D. Turner and P. Bateson (Eds), The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour (p. 201-212). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The Cat Fanciers’ Assocation (CFA). About the Manx. Retrieved August 28, 2019.
Springer, Ilene. 2008. Understanding your cat's body language: she sends both subtle and obvious signs. Do you know what they mean? Cat Watch, p. 8+. Accessed August 28, 2019.
Washington State University Extension (WSU-E). 2008. Cat anatomy and physiology. Retrieved August 28, 2019.