Here’s Why Cats Have Tails, According To Vets

Do they really help cats land on their feet?

arrows pointing at cats tails

Have you ever wondered if it’s actually true that cats always land on their feet when they fall?

It may be a little exaggerated, but cats are great at balancing, and it turns out that their tails help them do this.

And beyond balancing, cat tails have some other uses that you might not have realized.

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, medical director of Bond Vet, and Dr. Megan Conrad, a veterinarian with Hello Ralphie, to find out why cats have tails and what they use them for.

Movement and balance

Cats are known to have amazing balance, and their tails help them with that. It’s kind of like how you’d put your arms out to the side if you were walking on a narrow surface to keep yourself steady.

“A tail acts a bit like a counterweight or stabilizer,” Dr. Fadl told The Dodo. “Think of it as similar to the pole a tightrope walker would use to stabilize themselves.”

Their tails work as a counterweight to help them flip over before they reach the ground, too, which is why cats always seem to land on their feet.

Your cat’s tail also helps him when he’s walking and running.

“As the cat moves or suddenly shifts, the tail will shift opposite where the body needs to go, allowing for the legs and back hips to realign and react quickly, which keeps them upright,” Dr. Conrad told The Dodo.

Communication

Cats use their tails to show how they’re feeling, which you probably notice in your own cat sometimes.

“The tail is also very important for communication,” Dr. Fadl said. “You may have seen a cat swishing their tail back and forth when they’re playful or annoyed, or approaching you with their tail up as part of a friendly greeting. Or maybe you’ve seen a cat with their tail fully poofed out when startled.”

Here are some tail body language signs to help you communicate with your cat:

  • Happy: Your cat will have a relaxed, extended tail with the hair lying flat. His tail might vibrate or quiver. “A relaxed tail is often a more approachable cat,” Dr. Conrad said.
  • Scared: Your cat will hold his tail rigidly and straight up, tuck it between his legs or wrap his tail around his body to hide himself.
  • Aggressive: Your cat will puff up his tail and hold it high.
  • Wants to be left alone: “A tail that is fluffed up, twitching or held straight up is not a cat who wants to be approached,” Dr. Conrad said. Your cat may flick his tail, too.
  • Curious: “Cats with raised tails that ‘hook’ at the end are often communicating they are curious or interested in you,” Dr. Conrad said.

But be sure to check out the rest of your cat’s body language along with what his tail’s doing, since a tail may not tell the whole story. “Always observe other body behavior — never rely solely on the tail,” Dr. Conrad said.

Why do some cats have no tails?

Some cats are born without tails or with bobtails (aka short tails). The Manx cat, for example, is a breed that doesn't have a tail.

“In Manx cats, their lack of a tail originated as a genetic mutation or variation, but they are now recognized as their own breed,” Dr. Fadl said.

Even though cats’ tails are super important, cats who are born without tails or with bobtails are able to get by fine without them because their bodies have adapted to allow them to live without a tail.

“Many of these cats have a different make up in their hind limbs versus other cats,” Dr. Conrad said. “Their muscles are larger in the hind limbs and are slightly longer than their front limbs, which allow[s] for them to compensate, balance wise. They also may have an adjusted vestibular response in their ears and brain, which help[s] to compensate for lack of tail.”

Can cats break their tails?

A cat’s tail is attached to his spine and is made of vertebrae (along with muscles, ligaments and tendons) — so just like other bones, it can break.

“This may happen from a variety of injuries, such as the tail being stepped on or closed in a door, for example,” Dr. Fadl said. “Fortunately, most cats’ tail fractures can heal very well. Even if the tail heals at an angle, it usually doesn’t affect them long-term.”

Tail injuries can be really painful to your cat, though, so if you think there’s something wrong with your cat’s tail, you should contact your vet.

One injury that’s more serious is called the tail pull injury, which happens when a cat’s tail is pulled too hard and the base of the tail separates from the spine, causing nerve damage. This can lead to incontinence, lack of coordination or inability to hold his tail up.

What happens if a cat loses his tail?

Cats who have their tails amputated after a serious injury will learn to balance without their tails, just like those who are born without one. The rest of their senses will compensate for their lack of tail.

“If a cat loses their tail in an injury, it may take a while, but the body will slowly start to compensate by adjusting muscles and senses, which will allow the cat to respond normally,” Dr. Conrad said.

According to Dr. Fadl, a potential exception could be an injury like the tail pull injury, which can result in symptoms that aren’t treatable. “The tail is an extension of the spinal column, so an injury at the base of the tail, where it connects to the rest of the body and spinal column, could result in nerve damage and incontinence,” Dr. Fadl said.

Why don’t cats like you touching their tails?

Your cat probably doesn’t like you touching his tail because he’s trying to protect an important part of his body. Cats’ tails contain bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments, so they’re pretty sensitive. And your cat’s tail is extremely important, since he uses it to help him move, balance and communicate.

“The tail is even equipped with similar withdrawal, flexion and other reflexes, which allow for it to be protected like a limb,” Dr. Conrad said. “You can think of the tail as more like a fifth limb than just a tail.”

So instead of touching your cat’s tail, you should probably only pet your cat where he likes to be petted.

“Most cats don’t like having their tail touched, although there are some cats out there who enjoy it (or at least tolerate it),” Dr. Fadl said. “Unless you know for sure that a cat enjoys having their tail touched, it’s best to stick with petting the areas they do enjoy — usually the head, neck and shoulders.”

So next time your cat lands magically on his feet like a little gymnast, you’ll know it’s because of his tail (that you should only admire from afar!).