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Why Do Cats Have Tails?

Two cats with tails
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In 2018, a cat named Cygnus Regulus Powers earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest tail in the world. The silver Maine Coon, nicknamed Cy, has a tail measuring 17.58 inches long. His owners must be careful not to step on his tail or catch it in doors—and Cy has to spend a little extra time on grooming to make sure his entire tail looks its best.

There are cats with short tails, cats with long tails and cats with no tails. But why do cats have tails? 

Regardless of the length of the tail, the appendage is pretty amazing and serves a number of functions, ranging from communication to balance. Let’s take a deep dive into learning more about your cat’s tail. 

Cat Tail Anatomy

Cat tails are complex structures made up of vertebrae, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves, according to Dr. S. Ellen Everett, clinical assistant professor of community practice at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Cat tails are an extension of their spines,” Dr. Everett explains.

Cats have 18 to 23 vertebrae in their tails. The vertebrae are largest at the base of the tail and get progressively smaller toward the tip of the tail. The vertebrae allow cats to move different portions of their tails.

Cats also have six muscles on each side of the tail. The muscles help with flexion and extension, allowing cats to hold their tails up high or tuck them underneath their bodies. These muscles also allow your cat to move their tail side-to-side, so know that these muscles are working when your cat swishes their sassy tail around. [1]

Why Do Cats Have Tails?

Cat walking with tails

A feline’s tails is used to help with balance, communication, and marking.

Communication

Cats hold their tails in different positions to communicate their feelings. A confident, content cat holds their tail high while a cat that holds their tail low could be feeling stressed or agitated. A puffed-up tail is a sign to back off. When your cat thrashes their tail or thumps it on the ground, they are feeling irritated.

“You can see changes in their tails that go along with changes in their body language,” Dr. Everett says.

Learning cat tail language can help you better understand a cat’s mood and give you cues about whether to approach cats or give them some space.

Balance

Cats depend on their tails to help them balance when running along the back of the couch or climbing on top of the refrigerator. In fact, research shows that the neurons in the brain that respond to vertical, lateral, and angular movements also influence tail movements [2].

“There are some cats who are quite athletic that don’t have tails [because of genetics or injuries] and have learned to balance without it,” says Dr. Everett. “Their balance is better when they do have tails.”

During falls, cats appear to rotate their tails in a direction opposite the rest of their bodies to help maintain their equilibrium.

Dr. Everett notes that our feline friends use their tails like we stick out our arms for added balance, adding, “It helps with their kitty gymnastics.”

Scent Marking

Cats mark with urine and feces but also use gland secretions from their facial and tail areas as a means of marking [3]. Males are more apt to rub up against objects to leave their scents, but females do it, too.

Why Do Some Cats Not Have Tails?

Some cats have short tails, and some cats have no tails at all. Five modern cat breeds – Japanese Bobtail, Manx, American Bobtail, Pixie-Bob and the Kurilian Bobtail – are all born with “abnormal” tail lengths.

If you’ve ever wondered, “why does my cat have a short tail?” the answer could be a genetic mutation. There are 144 genes linked to short or kinked tails in cats. Cats with the genetic mutation often have short or bobbed tails.

“Depending on how many vertebrae are missing, cats [without tails] can have problems,” Dr. Everett says. “It affects the nerve that goes to their anal sphincter and bladder and can cause urinary or fecal incontinence or trouble using their back legs.”

Sometimes, injuries require amputation. Dr. Everett admits that losing a tail might impact communication, balance, and scent marking, but that “most cats adapt well.”

Cat Tail FAQs

Gray cat tail

Can cats control their tails?

The cat has conscious control of the muscles in their tail, allowing cats to control their tail movements just as they control the movements of other parts of their bodies. . The muscles on each side of the tail and the progressively smaller vertebrae allow the cat to move their tail in many directions. Dr. Everett notes that cats might be so used to controlling their tails (to keep them from getting slammed in doors) that some cats don’t like to have their tails touched.

Do cats wag their tails?

Cats can wag their tails. Unlike dogs, who typically wag when content or excited, cats tend to use small flicks of their tail to signal indecision or excitement and broader, swishing movements as a sign of potential aggression or predatory behavior. Thrashing tail movements often signal irritation.

Why do cats chase their tails?

It’s not just dogs who chase their tails. Tail chasing is a popular pastime for cats, too. The behavior starts with kittens who might be chasing their tails as a means of practicing their hunting and pouncing skills. Adult cats often outgrow the behavior but it’s still possible to see mature cats engaged in games of tail chasing for entertainment [4]. 

Do cats have bones in their tails?

Cat tails are made up of a combination of bones, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves. Most cats have 18 to 23 vertebrae (small bones) that are larger at the base and smaller at the tip.

Can a cat break its tail?

Just as other bones can break, the bones in a cat’s tail can break, too. The vertebrae in the tail are small, making them more fragile but Dr. Everett notes that it takes “pretty good force” to break a cat’s tail.

“More often, when a cat gets their tail caught in something, it ends up being fine,” she says. “If there’s enough force, the tail can break.”

Cats have feeling in their tails and a broken tail will be painful – but amputation is rare unless the vertebrae are crushed or the skin is too damaged to grow back to cover the bone. Your veterinarian may just recommend pain management and monitoring.

In cases where amputation is necessary, the end of the tail may lose feeling and the skin from the injury to the end of the tail may dry up. Amputation may also be recommended if your cat cannot feel the end of their tail after an injury, as they may not know if they catch their tail in a door, sit their tail on a stovetop burner, or run their tail through a candle.

Cats with kinks in their tails often had some sort of trauma, like a broken bone, which has healed out of alignment. Typically, these felines do just fine despite their bent tails!

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