Cats use their tails to communicate many different emotions, so you're not alone if you find yourself confused about what your kitty is saying from time to time!

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cat happily wagging his tail at his human with Feline Fine logo
Credit: Emma Darvick

Cats can seem as mysterious as the Mona Lisa because their faces reveal very little about their emotions. But your cat's tail is another story. Each swish, shake, and wag reveals how he's feeling, how to meet his needs, and what to expect next.

Do Cats and Dogs Communicate Differently?

Like dogs, cats use their tails to communicate. However, cats can sometimes send mixed messages because their tail movements cover a wide range of emotions. "A lot of people think cats are mysterious and aloof but, in reality, it's just in their nature to conceal their emotions," says Molly DeVoss, Certified Feline Training and Behavior Specialist for Cat Behavior Solutions in Dallas.

"Dogs have evolved with a social hierarchy that differs from cats. Dogs view their owners as pack leaders and, thus, try to please them. This often includes mimicking happy expressions that make you smile," DeVoss says. "But cats have evolved as a solitary species. In the wild they live alone, not with other cats, so they have little need for communication."

DeVoss says that when cats communicate with one another in the wild, it revolves around territorial and mating gestures. In those situations, revealing their emotions might be interpreted as a sign of weakness, so cats use a silent form of communication—their tails. This is true of domestic cats, too, who are known for their "poker face," especially when compared to dogs who are much more expressive.

Cat body language is fascinating to watch, yet complicated to understand. To accurately "read" your cat, DeVoss recommends considering his tail and overall body position, plus his activity and surrounding environment at the time. Put the pieces together—like a puzzle—for the context needed to decode your cat's language, meet your feline friend's needs, and strengthen your bond with him.

12 Ways Cats Wag Their Tails and What They're Trying to Communicate

When your cat talks with his tail, take heed. Here's what he's trying to tell you.

1. Wagging Tail 

Dogs wag their tails to show they're happy, but not cats. In fact, a cat's wagging tail usually means exactly the opposite. If two cats wag their tails at one another while their backs are arched and their heads are lowered they may be about to engage in a skirmish. However, a constantly wagging tail may also indicate that your cat is in pain.

2. Straight Up Tail

When your cat's tail pops straight up, he's happy to see you. It's also a sign of trust and joy when your cat walks near other pets or objects that they love.

3. Tail Straight Out and Rigid

When your cat is crouched and ready to pounce, his tail goes straight out and rigid so it can be used as a balancing tool when making quick turns or jumping.

4. Lowered Tail

The lower the tail, the more cautious or unsure your cat is feeling.

5. Tucked Tail

A tucked tail could be a sign of fear.

6. Flicking Tail

A flicking tail indicates excitement, contemplation, beginning irritation, or that your cat is in pain.

7. Tapping Tail

When your cat is in a relaxed position and tapping the end of his tail, it means he's slightly annoyed or contemplating something. Like "I'm trying to sleep and that sound is bothering me," or "My tummy is grumbling," or "I'm thinking about getting up to go to the litter box, but I'm so sleepy."

8. Swishing Tail

A side-by-side swish says your cat is irritated or agitated.

9. Question Mark Tail

When the tip of your cat's tail forms the shape of a question mark, it means he's happy or in a playful mood.

10. Tail Shiver or Shudder

Your cat is excited, marking his territory, or is feeling stressed, anxious, or insecure if his tail shivers or shudders.

11. Puffed Out Tail

If the hair on your cat's tail puffs out and his body arches (think Halloween cat silhouette), he's been startled by something and is really scared.

12. The Wrap

When your cat wraps his tail around you or drags his tail over you, it's an affectionate, trusting gesture. It can also be a sign of ownership. Yes (unsurprisingly), your cat believes you belong to him, instead of him to you.