Think of your cat’s tail; it’s beautiful, expressive, and an unmistakable part of a cat’s silhouette. It may be even more amazing than you think. Not only does a cat’s tail add to its cuteness, it serves some pretty important functions for the cat as well.

Title Photo Credit: mark.watmough via Flickr

Anatomy of a Cat’s Tail

1280px-Skeleton_diagram_of_a_cat.svg

A – Cervical, B – Thoracic, C – Lumbar, D – Sacral, E– Caudal
Image Credit: Przemek Maksim via Wikimedia

A cat’s tail is an extension of the cat’s spine. For cats with full-length tails (some breeds have no tails) the spine is composed of 52-53 vertebrae. There are 7 cervical vertebrae (neck), 13 thoracic vertebrae (upper back), 7 lumbar vertebrae (lower back), 3 sacral vertebrae (pelvic area connecting the main spine to the tail), and 22-23 caudal vertebrae (the tail).

Just like humans, a cat’s spine has a very important core grouping of nerves called the spinal cord running through it. However, the spinal cord ends around the 5th lumbar vertebrae and does not continue on into the tail. At the end of the spinal cord, nerves that control the movements and sensations of the tail, the hind legs, the bladder, large intestine and anus branch out in long cords to reach their respective areas of function. This bundle of nerves is referred to as the cauda equina.

Injuries to the Tail

Injuries to a cat’s tail, such as when a child pulls on the tail, can have consequences that reach further than the tail itself. Tension on the cat’s tail pulls on the tail’s nerve endings which in turn pull on the entire cauda equina. Therefore, tail injuries can result in loss of feeling or mobility in the tail or hind legs and problems with the bladder, large intestine, and anus.

A broken tail and other cat tail injuries may not be obvious just by looking at the tail. Even signs of pain may be delayed. Some clues that your cat’s tail could be injured include:

What's that ?

Photo Credit: Trish Hamme via Flickr

  • Pain at the tail head (where the cat’s tail meets the body)
  • Involuntary dribbling urine
  • Anus no longer properly tight or closing (involuntary diarrhea may be present)
  • Not holding the tail very high
  • Hind legs not properly coordinated
  • Loss of sensation in the tail
  • Bloody urine (soon after the trauma)

Cats can make a full recovery from cat tail injuries, it all depends on the extent of the damage. Nerves heal very slowly. Recovery can take several months. If you think that you cat may have a tail injury, contact your veterinarian right away.

Balance

One of the main functions of a cat’s tail has to do with balance. There was a study performed that tested the influence of the tail on the cat’s balance. Cats were trained to walk on a narrow beam. Next, their balance was tested by shifting the beam while the cat was walking on it. Frame by frame photos showed that the movement cat’s tail helped the cat’s hips to adjust correctly to the shifting beam. The experiment was performed again after the cat’s underwent a procedure which severed the nerves that allow for voluntary control of  the tail. Cats that could not voluntarily move their tail fell more often.

Cat Tail Communication

One of the most obvious uses of a cat tail is for self-expression. The position of the tail, along with other posturing, can give you a good idea of how your kitty is feeling. There are some generally accepted explanations of a few different tail positions, but they can vary from cat to cat. Some of these expressions are learned socially and so cats that didn’t spend very much time with other cats as  young kittens may have created their own expressions. The best way to know what your cat’s tail positions mean is to spend a lot of time with you cat. Here are a few of the generally accepted expressions:

A cat's tail is for more than just looks. Keep reading to learn about the anatomy of a cat's tail and a few of the important ways that cats use their tails.

Manna demonstrating the “Question Mark” tail. She is always ready to play!

  • Tail straight up
    This means that the cat is generally happy, confident, or excited. Interestingly, this tail position is meaningful within the cat social hierarchy. Cats of a lower social status will give a tail up to cats of a higher social position.
  • Question mark tail (tail straight up with a curve at the tip)
    This tail means that the cat is in a friendly mood and accepting of social interaction. The cat may also be ready to play!
  • Low tail
    A tail held low could be a position of playfulness or of caution.
  • Slowly swishing tail
    A tail that is slowly moving back and forth could mean that your kitty has found something that has captured his/her attention ( a bird, a bug, etc).
  • Flicking tail
    Watch out for the flicking tail – this one means that your kitty is annoyed. It can be a good indication that they are not enjoying being petted at the moment.
  • Tucked tail
    Just like dogs, the tucked tail position is indicative of fear and submission.
  • Puffy tail 
    Don’t approach a cat with a puffy tail and an arched back. These kitties are fearful and defensive. They are poised to attack at any time.

What are you favorite things about your cat’s tail?

Sources and Digging Deeper

Cat Skeleton – Zoo Lab

Cats with Broken Tails – Mar Vista Animal Medical Center

Balance in the cat: role of the tail and effects of sacrocaudal transection.

Cat Tail Wagging: What Different Wags Mean- Pet360

The Tail Speaks Louder Than Words – Jackson Galaxy

The social function of tail up in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus)