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Why do cats wag their tails? [Factsheet]

Have you ever wondered what your cat’s trying to tell you?

From their ears to their tail, cats have a unique way of communicating. Even the smallest signs and changes in their body language can mean a great deal, so taking time to learn about cat body language will enhance your relationship with your cat and is essential for a harmonious life together.

Learn more fascinating insights into your cat’s behaviour in this short blog.

How cats communicate: Interpreting cat body language

When we’re looking at cat body language, these things are key: body language (e.g., posture, movement, ears, eyes, tail and whiskers), context and vocalisation. Always look at the cat as a whole and take into account the context.

Signs of a relaxed cat

When you return home and your cat walks towards you with a raised tail that’s softly bent at the tip, they are greeting you or asking for attention so feel free to offer a gentle stroke on the head to return their greeting. Other indications of a relaxed and affectionate cat include: ears forward and relaxed, whiskers relaxed, looking at you with slow blinking eyes, head bumping against you, purring or a meow in greeting.

Signs of a stressed cat

Dilated pupils can indicate a cat is stressed, as can a tail flicking from side to side or wrapped tightly down or around the body.

A frightened cat may have their ears pinned back, squinting eyes, and be crouching and stiff with their tail wrapped tightly around them. This could indicate your cat is in pain and may need a veterinary check.

Understanding cat tail behaviours

Why do cats wag their tails? A vital part of understanding cat behaviour is learning about cat tail language. A vertical tail can be a sign of a friendly greeting; if the tail is quivering it can show the cat is excited to see you, or is using scent marking behaviour. A rapidly swishing tail can indicate annoyance, a sign the cat wants to be left alone. A more gently wagging tail can show focus or playfulness.

If the hair at the base of the tail becomes fluffy, this can show excitement or that the cat is over-stimulated, so best to let them relax with your hands off for a moment if you were stroking them. An unhappy cat may wrap their tail tightly around them or down low. A bushy tail can occur from a fright or when feeling defensive.

Decoding cat communication: Insights into vocalisations and eye contact


Purring is one of the most famous features of cats, with a range of possible meanings from ‘please continue to stroke me’, to expressing happiness, to self-soothing after a stressful or painful event.


Cat pupil size can indicate if they are relaxed (e.g., narrow pupils, almond shaped eyes) or dilated pupils and wide, round eyes when stressed (but remember that in dim lighting a cat’s pupils will dilate naturally).

Direct eye contact can be intimidating for cats. To show your cat you are relaxed, blink slowly and look slowly to the side. Your cat may respond by also slowly blinking back at you!

Exploring other common cat behaviours and their meanings


When cats are rubbing themselves around our legs they are scent marking us as they smooch their face and body against us. Cats have scent glands around their face and anoint us with these to show we are part of their family. Consider it a compliment!


Some people call this ‘making bikkies’ as the cat appears to be kneading dough with their front paws when on a comfortable pillow or lap! Kneading appears to indicate a cat feels affectionate and relaxed - as they did when laying as a young kitten, suckling from their Mum, aww!

Lip licking

Cats may lick their lips after eating, but this behaviour can also indicate that they are feeling uneasy or nauseous.

Flattened ears

If the ears are flattened it can show a cat is anxious or frightened.

Rolling over

Rolled over and exposing the belly is a social greeting and sign that a cat trusts you. However, it’s not an invitation to touch their tummy, as many cats find that stressful. A gentle stroke on the head or waiting until they stand up and approach you are better options.


Some cats like to suddenly run around in an excited way. Some cat owners report their cats do this when bored, after long rest periods, or just after using the litter tray!

How to enhance communication with your feline companion

Never force a cat to interact with you, especially if they are showing signs of stress or avoidant behaviour. Be patient and let a cat come to you if they feel ready to mingle. Provide space for cats to hide, climb and explore safely. Understanding and respecting your cat’s body language will build their trust in you.

Consider the use of a synthetic cat pheromone spray or diffuser in your home to help your cat feel more relaxed, particularly if you have just had a big change like moving house or have only recently adopted your cat.

Enhancing your bond

We all want to have a closer relationship with our beloved animals. By taking some time to learn more about cat body language and responding to them, we can look forward to enhancing our bond and improving our lives together.

Download Why cats wag their tails [Factsheet]

If you have any concerns about your cat’s health please contact your vet, and consider Pet Insurance to help make sure they get the care they deserve. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums will go towards supporting the valuable work of the RSPCA.

Dr Catherine Tiplady bio image

Dr Catherine Tiplady

Dr Catherine Tiplady studied veterinary science at the University of Queensland. After graduation, Dr Catherine worked in veterinary practice whilst undertaking postgraduate research in Animal Welfare, gaining additional degrees in Bachelor of Applied Science (Animal Studies) (Hons 1) and a PhD. Dr Catherine has published widely in peer reviewed scientific journals and has also authored a book, ‘Animal Abuse: Helping Animals and People’. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Catherine also has her own business performing gentle in-home pet euthanasia and provides veterinary care and desexing services for animal welfare charities. Dr Catherine brings her passion for animal welfare, love of writing and scientific training together to contribute quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance’s Pet Care blog.