Tail Language: What Is Your Pet's Tail Saying?

Dog Tail

Story at-a-glance

  • Animals use their tails for defense and attack, balance, steering, and, in the case of marine animals, movement
  • Other animals depend on their tails for courtship, marking territory, and swatting pests
  • Some animals have prehensile tails, which can grasp and hold objects
  • Tails are also used for communication, both with humans and other animal species

By Dr. Becker

Your dog’s wagging tail may very well be one of your most favorite things, but it serves a purpose far beyond bringing you joy. Animal tails are, in fact, incredibly useful for many reasons. After you read through 10 of their most amazing uses below,1 you might even wish you had one yourself!

1. For Attack

Many animals use their tails for self-defense, but for the scorpion the tail is also used as a weapon for attack. In addition to defense, when a scorpion catches prey in its front pincers, it then uses its tail to deliver a deadly dose of poison to its victim.

2. Grasping/Holding

What’s the difference between a monkey and an ape? Monkeys have tails, apes don’t. Some monkeys have what are called prehensile tails, which function as an extra limb allowing the monkey to hold and grasp objects. Monkeys’ prehensile tails are used to swing from branches and hold onto food. (Anteaters and opossums also have prehensile tails.)

3. Flight

A bird’s tail is made up of feathers called rectrices. These are used for stability and control, as birds use their tails as rudders to help them steer.

4. Courtship

Peacocks use their tails to help attract a mate. Interestingly, each peacock’s tail is unique, like a fingerprint.

5. To Swat Pests

Animals that have long tails with tufts of hair on the end or throughout (like cows, horses, and zebras) use their tails to swat away flies and other insect pests.

6. Marking Territory

Many animals spread feces to mark their territory, but the hippopotamus can twirl its tail like a propeller while it poops, which allows its feces to be spread far and wide.

7. Defense

Tails help animals escape predators in a number of amazing ways. Rattlesnakes use their tails to sound an audible warning, while certain lizards have tails that detach from their bodies so they can escape even after they’re caught. Three-banded armadillos can even fit their head and tail together like a puzzle, rolling into an armored ball.

8. Locomotion

Fish and marine mammals use their tails to move through the water. Fish tails move side to side while marine mammals’ tails move up and down, which allows them to propel themselves out of the water when they need to breathe air.

9. Balance

Many animals use their tails to help them balance. Your cat is one of them, as are squirrels – both examples of animals that have an amazing ability to navigate perilous terrain.

10. Communication

Animals also use their tails to communicate, and this includes your dog and cat. Cats’ tails, for instance, can display many emotions, such as fear, excitement, and irritation. Your dog’s tail wags can indicate happiness or friendliness, and they also help your dog communicate with other dogs.

Recent research suggests that when dogs feel stress, they tend to wag their tails to the left as a reflection of what's happening in the brain.2 Activation of the left-brain causes the tail to wag to the right; activation of the right brain produces a wag to the left.

The research shows that dogs wag to the right side when they encounter something pleasant. When they see something threatening, for example, a strange dog exhibiting dominant behaviors, they wag more to the left side.

These results suggest that dogs notice another dog's tail wagging and use the information to decide whether the dog with the wagging tail is friend or foe. What do other tail positions mean (among dogs, at least)?3

  • A tail held high is a sign of dominance. The dog will release more of their scent from their anal glands this way, thus making their presence known
  • A tail held high and wagging is often a sign of happiness
  • A tail held horizontal to the ground means your dog is exploring
  • A low-wagging tail is a sign of worry or insecurity
  • A tail tucked between the legs is a sign of fear or submission (this position also prevents his scent from being released)

And Two Bonus Tail Uses…

Some animals, such as foxes, use their tails to keep warm during the winter. Others, like alligators, use them to store fat.4

What Does This Mean for Tail Docking?

Considering that a dog’s tail serves far more than simply an aesthetic purpose, cutting it off solely for cosmetic reasons is as barbaric as it sounds. Not only is tail docking painful (and often done on puppies without anesthesia), but also it will impede your dog’s ability to communicate with other dogs – and maybe even with you.

Dogs also use their tails, to some extent, for balance and steering while swimming, so they will miss out on that benefit too. Dogs, like other animals, are born with tails for a reason, and there’s no justification for changing this.

Fortunately, routine tail docking is considered unacceptable by the majority of veterinarians and general public.5 The procedure is also highly restricted or banned in many countries, including across Europe, Australia, Iceland, Israel, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, and the Virgin Islands.

Unfortunately, the American Kennel Club (AKC), although it has no rules specifically requiring docking, continues to encourage it by claiming the procedure is “integral to defining and preserving breed character and/or enhancing good health.”6

If you are interested in showing your undocked dog, you might be interested in supporting more progressive organizations, such as the United Kennel Club (UKC), which is supportive of including animals in their events that have not been surgically altered.