The Totally Tall Tell Tale Tale Of Those Terrific Tails

By: Chéri Craft

Have you ever stopped to watch your dog or cat move their tail?  There are so many tail positions, movements, speeds, wags, swishes and wiggles that this must all mean something.  Our furry friends are communicating messages of their emotions. Let’s take a look at what this unique form of communication means and how we can better understand our faithful companions.

Understanding animal body language is critical in the animal/human interaction.  Especially with our own pets that are living with us in our homes in our daily lives.  Many animals use their tails to communicate different messages.  Among these animals are dogs and cats.  Dogs and cats make up a large majority of household pets.  Many households have both dogs and cats and often more than one of each. 

Have you ever assumed that a dog wagging their tail is happy, friendly and safe?  This is a misconception and we should use caution especially if we are unfamiliar with the dog in question.  The actual truth of the matter is that tail wagging can mean many different things.  There are many factors involved in what appears to be a simple tail wag.  The environment and surroundings of the pet, the situation at hand, if another dog or strange person unfamiliar to the dog is present, if the pet has been frightened or if his or her owner has just arrived home after being gone. 

Research is showing evidence that when our furry friends wag their tails they are using a highly complex form of communication. While tails are used for things such as counterbalance and in some breeds to keep warm when they curl up to sleep, it is evident that the tail is a tool of communication using a natural language within a species.  The position of a dog’s tail speaks mountains.  If your dog has his tail straight up, midway and even with their back, tail down at back legs or tucked between his legs these are all indications of his or her emotional state of mind or mood. For example, Tail positioning and wag speed can be an indicator of happiness, confidence, aggression, fear, anxiety, dominance or submissiveness.

What about our feline friends? What is meant by kitty tail movements?  One of the most important facts regarding a cat’s tail is that it is essential to its remarkable balance.  Tails are a key factor in your cat’s ability to land on its feet most of the time. This is accomplished by the tail aiding in their righting reflex.  Cats hold their tail up high overhead to maintain composure.

With cats, the tail, like the whiskers are filled with nerves and serve as a form of sensory touch.  Fun Furry Fact:  The tail of the cat contains ten percent of it body’s bones.  Cats like dogs use their tails to communicate their feelings and emotions to humans as well as other animals.  There is a multitude of wags, swishes and swats that fall within the cat version of tail language.  Cats can and do control their tails for the most part.  As with our canine companions, a great deal of The Totally Tall Tell Tale Tale of Those Terrific Tails can be told and witnessed as their emotions are most definitely made evident by the movement, speed and position of this expressive appendage of their body.  Their Tail!!

New Italian research shows tail wagging at a much deeper level.  This study suggest that tail wagging toward the right is a positive emotion, while a tail wagging toward the left indicates negative feelings. Experts are theorizing that the left/right tail wagging correlation with positive and negative emotion is an illustration of left brain/right brain differences.  With each side of the brain controlling opposite sides of the body.  This research shows tail wagging of our furry friends in a clear light.

In humans and in some other animals the left brain is associated with positive emotions while the right brain is responsible for feelings of sadness and/or fear.

Looking at the possible explanations that have been examined in research regarding various tail movements, positions, speeds, etc. the following is believed to be true.

Dogs:  Pawsitive Paw Points . . .

Slight Tail Wag:  Shy – Tentative Greeting

Broad Tail Wag:  Friendly – Happy – A happy dog will allow his tail to follow its natural curve or curl over its back.

Circle Wag:  A tail wagging in circles shows happiness and excitement

Slow Sweeps/Tail Standing High:  Feeling of Security, Confidence and Proud

Slow Wag/Tail Lowered:  Insecurity

A Slight/Small Fast Wag:  Indicator that the canine may be about to run/bolt or fight.

 Cats:  Purrfect Pouncing Points . . . 

Friendly Cat:  Will hold his/her tail high in the air with a tall, confident posture.  The tip of the tail may crook forward or quiver when feeling particularly happy.

Playful Cat:  Will curve his/her tail like a question mark.  If your cat is focused on an object, his tail may twitch at the end or swish from side to side right before he pounces.

Mildly Irritated Cat:  Will thump his tail or twitch the end of his tail.

Aggressive Cat:  Will display fluffed up tail or a tail that is lashing from side to side (accompanied by ears pinned backward on the head, dilated pupils, an arched back or whiskers held out to the side).

Fearful Or Pained Cat:  Will tuck his/her tail underneath or close to his prone body or hold his tail low to the ground (accompanied by ears pinned back and held outward, dilated pupils or whiskers flattened against his face).

It is important to mention that while this article centers around the family dog and cat it is in no way suggesting that these are the only two species that use this highly complex tail language.  In fact a good majority of our animal friends use their tails to communicate emotion, mood and state of mind.  From domestic to those members of the animal kingdom in the wild as well there is certainly a tall tell tale tale to tell.

Cats of the wild such as the Lynx or the Bobcat and also our wild canine friends such as foxes, coyotes and wolves have scent glands on the upper surface of their tails.  The scent that is excreted from these glands are used to communicate imperative information ranging from territory boundaries to particular species being ready to mate.  Wondering how this works? Fun Fur Fact:  The same muscles that cause the fur to stand erect also squeeze these glands to emit an unmistaken odiferous protein compound onto the surface of the skin.  

In other species tails serve as a tool of protection such as the skunk that raises his tail to warn of its powerful spray.  A raccoon has bands around its tail to help them be camouflaged.  Beavers use their tails to help build dams and to make a loud slap noise to warn of danger.  Foxes and white tail deer use their tails to signal danger.  The deer has a brown tail that it flashes the white underside to alert of impending danger.  Some animals like the squirrel use their big or bushy tails for warmth and insulation during cold temperature times when they remain active. 

So as we can clearly see, The Totally Tall Tell Tale Tale Of Those Terrific Tails has many chapters.  For Animals domestic or wild, big or small there is a Tall Tell Tale Tale for them All.    

In Summary, we can comfortably say that pets have a highly complex form of communication by using their tails to expresses their emotions, moods and tells us so much about what they are feeling.  Both dogs and cats chase their tail from being bored and to be playful.  A wagging tail is not always a happy friendly animal.  Read the body language with the tail movements and position while carefully considering everything that is going on in the moment for that animal.  

So now we must ask the question . . .What was my pet’s tail saying again?

And . . . Does my pet’s tail send out messages?

PAWSITIVELY!!  Your pet’s tail is communicating with you!!

It is my hope that this article has proven helpful and informative to you concerning pet communication.  Knowing what signals and messages our “furry furrends” are sending out to us further adds to our closeness and feeds our desire to have them near us.  To quote the award winning poet and author of spiritual nonfiction, Elizabeth Eiler, “Animal communication is like any other form of telepathic intuitive conversation.  The thoughts and feelings of people and animals carry energetic signatures, communicated through very primal, nonverbal channels.” Wishing all of you a safe and Pawsitively Purrfect Autumn Season. 

Without the assistance of great research and brilliant authors we as writers would have a very difficult job.  Reference material is beyond essential to those of us that bring information to you.  I want to take a moment to give appreciation to those that assisted me by the work they have done.  All work cited listings below are amazing resources and I urge you to read the work of these fellow writers.   

Works Cited:

  1. Face Foundation


Head to Tail: The Language of Tail

Information in this article gives credit to Dr. Stanley Coren’s article in Psychology Today

  • Litter Robot Blog

By: Whisker

Cat Tail Language 101

  • Dog’s Best Life

Article Author: Karen A. Soukiasian

Owner  of Good Dog – Dog Training

St. Augustine, Florida


  • Animal Tails and the Tales They Tell

       Based on information from The Outside Story,  By Author:  Michael J. Caduto

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