Tail Language: Want to Know What Your Pet Is Thinking?

dog and cat tails

Story at-a-glance -

  • Your dog’s or cat’s tail is a rather fascinating appendage with its own style, history and method of communicating
  • Dog tails come in an impressive variety of lengths, shapes and carriage
  • Domestic cats’ tails are much the same from one kitty to the next, but if you learn to read her “tail language,” you’ll know more about what your feline companion is feeling

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Like most pet guardians, you probably feel from time to time as if your animal companion is almost human. Our dogs often seem to understand when we’re feeling down. And if you’ve ever exchanged an "I love you" look with your kitty, you know you’re in tune with each other.

But while emotionally our pets can seem more like humans than animals, their very different physical presence is always a reality check! Canine and feline bodies, like those of all living creatures, are wonders of nature. Every part of your pet’s physique is perfectly designed to serve an important purpose.

Obviously, one body part both dogs and cats possess that humans do not is a tail. Your pet’s tail is actually a mobile and flexible extension of his spine. It’s attached to the sacrum, which is the bone at the base of the spine.

The tail contains bones called caudal or coccygeal vertebrae that get progressively smaller toward the tip. There are small joints and discs between each bone to cushion them. There are blood vessels and nerves all along the length of the tail, as well as muscles that control the movement of the tail and also play a role in the pooping process. Here are a few facts about your furry family member’s tail that may surprise you.

There Are Almost as Many Types of Dog Tails as There Are Dog Breeds

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But there really are many more types of canine tails than people realize. Tails can be quite short (bobbed), medium length or long. They can be thick and bushy, or thin with just a fine covering of fur. Tail shapes also vary widely and can even give clues about a dog’s breed. Shapes include sickle/curled, snap, otter, carrot, tufted, sword, saber, bobbed, gay, tapered and corkscrew.

Sickle or curled tail. Several cold weather breeds have this type of tail, which is shaped like a sickle and curls forward over the back. Examples include the Siberian Husky, Shiba Inu, Keeshond, the Chow-Chow and (oddly) the Chihuahua. The sickle tail is designed to help keep the dog’s face warm when he curls up in a ball to sleep.

Snap tail. This is a more tightly curled tail than the sickle, and is also found in Northern and cold climate breeds such as the Alaskan Malamute and the Pomeranian.

Otter or swimmer tail. This tail is what you see on Labrador and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, as well as Otterhounds. It’s thick at the base near the body and narrows to a blunt tip, and the hair on the underside appears to be parted. The otter tail functions as a rudder to help these dogs move well in the water.

Carrot tail. This stubby little tail is short, thick at the base and ends in a stumpy tip. These tails are seen primarily on West Highland Terriers, who “go to ground” pursuing rodents into their holes. Their stubby tails make good “handles” that farmers can grab (NOT recommended!) to pull a dog out of a vermin hole.

Bobbed tail. This is less like a tail and more like a little blob of fatty tissue. Breeds with a bobbed tail include the French Bulldog, Old English Sheepdog and the Pembroke Welsh Corgi. These dogs’ tails are naturally bobbed — not to be confused with tail docking.

Tufted tail. Tufted tails are seen on Poodles and Portuguese Water Dogs. These tails are set high and straight on the dog’s back, are quite furry and have a tuft at the end.

Tapered tail. Tapered tails are typically set high on the dog’s back, are wide at the base and are held either straight up or out. Dog breeds with tapered tails include several Terriers, the Dachshund and the Dalmatian.

Sword tail. American Staffordshire Terriers, Great Danes and some Pointers have a sword tail that is wide at the base and tapered at the tip. The natural position of this tail is straight down.

Saber tail. This tail shape resembles a saber. It’s long, held low and you’ll find it on many of the herding breeds such as Collies, the Belgian Malinois and the German Shepherd. Interestingly, the Cardigan Welsh Corgi also sports a saber tail.

Gay tail. The gay tail (meaning “happy tail”) is thick and slightly curved, and ends in a small, often white tuft at the tip. Breeds with gay tails include the Beagle, Border Collie and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Corkscrew tail. Think Pugs and Bulldogs.

If you have a mixed breed dog, can you identify his or her tail type? It could give you a clue as to what breeds make up your lovable mutt!

Cat Tails Speak Their Own Language

Unlike the same appendage on dogs, the tails of most domestic cats don’t vary all that much. Long-haired kitties tend to have impressively furry tails, whereas shorthaired cats’ tails only fluff up when they’re feeling excited, fearful or hostile. However, if you know what to look for, you can often read your feline companion’s mood by the appearance of her tail.

Tail standing straight up and quivering. If you’ve spent much time watching your cat, you’ve seen this action. It’s a sign kitty is feeling fine and experiencing anticipation, pleasure or excitement.

Straight up tail. A cat who’s feeling confident, comfortable and content holds her tail high and straight.

Tall tail with a question mark. You may notice your cat’s tail standing tall with a slight curve on the end, like a question mark. This means he’s feeling playful and ready for human interaction and communication.

Tail tucked underneath. When your cat sees or hears something alarming or frightening, she may begin acting strange or try to make herself look smaller. This usually means she tucks her tail, literally, between her legs.

Tail low to the ground. A kitty who’s feeling threatened by something in his environment may drop his tail low to the ground. If you notice your cat looking wary with his tail in this position, understand the behavior may quickly progress from uncertainty to aggression.

Tail lashing rapidly back and forth. If you see her tail whipping back and forth or thumping the floor, it’s a sure sign Princess is irritated. Recognize this stance as a warning — before she lashes out — that she may be preparing to take on whatever is getting on her last nerve.

Tail gently swishing from side to side. This move shows how focused cats can be as they wait for just the right moment to pounce! The prey they’re intent upon is something they find tantalizing, like a bird outside the window or a favorite catnip-stuffed toy.

Cats are enigmatic creatures. Once you learn to recognize the silent signals Mr. Whiskers is sending with his tail, you’ll have a bit of insight into what’s going on in that furry little head of his!

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