How Cats and Dogs “Talk” with Their Tails

Posted - June 24, 2021

By Arden Moore – The Pet Health and Safety Coach™

Dogs and cats do a lot of talking without uttering a single bark or meow. They are straight talkers who do not deceive or pretend. Among four-leggers, there is rarely a miscommunication or misinterpretation because cats and dogs communicate with one another through body postures, scent markings and to a lesser degree, vocalizations. Even though I have a degree in communications from Purdue University, I still make an occasional “faux paw” in determining what my cat, Casey, or my dog, Kona, is trying to tell me. To remind myself that I need to engage in a real two-way conversation with them, I purposely drink my daily coffee from a mug that reads “Wag More. Bark Less.” After all, forming a strong bond with our pets requires more listening to them and less yapping on our part.

Listening by interpreting your pet’s body language does more than just strengthen bonds, it can also reduce or prevent stress your pet may feel and can help keep everyone safe. Stress is something we all want to avoid because it can lead to behavioral or health problems as well as pet feeling on the defense.

Ready to improve your skills in pet communication? Read on. First, get into the habit of carefully looking at your pet’s entire body posture and listening for any vocal cues. Then look at what their tails are telling you.

WHAT ARE YOU SAYING, KITTY?

Cats are uniquely both prey and predator. They do their best to not show any vulnerability and are not as overly exuberant as our canine pals. Cats rely on their tails for balance and to communicate their emotional states. Think of their tail positioning as a mood barometer. Here are six common feline tail positions and what they signal:

  1. Question mark. The tail is bent in a question mark shape and signals that your cat is ready for playtime with you. Casey will walk toward me, hoisting his tail up and forming the tip in this punctuation mark. He is letting me know he is ready to be petted or for me to bring out his favorite wand toy for a play session.
  2. Hoisted high. A tail erected like a flagpole conveys a confident, contented cat. He feels safe in his environment. Congrats! You are making your home very feline-welcoming and calming.
  3. Puffed up. A scared cat may try to bluff his perceived threat by making his tail expand to look like bigger and wider in hopes it will ward off a person or pet who they feel may harm them.
  4. Swishing. The tail that moves slowly from one side to the other occurs when a cat is focused on a prey and ready to pounce. Place a toy mouse down the hallway and observe. His hunter instincts may kick in as he assess the scene, his tail will start swishing seconds before he leaps on the toy mouse.
  5. Whipping or lashing. Heed this feline warning. A cat who whips his tail quickly side to side is agitated and clearly cautioning you to back off. People who mistakenly think that they can wrangle an injured cat by scruffing their necks often fail to notice the cat’s tail starting to lash back and forth and their pupils widening before they attack.
  6. Tucked under. Scared or submissive cats convey their nervousness and uncertainty by positioning their tails beneath their bodies. These cats are communicating that they do not feel safe and are trying to make themselves smaller to hopefully go unnoticed by a real or perceived threat.

WHAT ARE YOU SAYING, DOGGY?

When first meeting a dog, read her total body posture message for your safety. Far too often, people zero in on a wagging tail and think that is the human equivalent of a happy handshake. Wrong!  Pay special attention to the dog’s facial expressions and look out for any signs of body tensing. Unlike a cat who’s facial expressions don’t vary much, a dog has many. Be on the alert if she pulls her lips back and emits a deep, long and low grrr sound. She is warning you and unheeded, she may bite. Some scared dogs also growl, flatten their ears and tuck their tails when they feel threatened.

Dogs “talk” a lot with their tails. Here is a rundown of some common canine tail positions and what they mean:

  1. Tall and erect. An alert dog holds his tail up. Think of a raised tail as a yellow caution light. Hunting breeds, such as Beagles and American Foxhounds, raise their tails to show the white tip to hunters when they have spotted birds or other game. Confident, friendly dogs raise their tails to expose their anal area, allowing other dogs to more easily sniff during greetings. However, a dog may raise his tail straight up to assert his authority over another dog. As the dog’s attitude shifts from cautionary to more dominant, or even anger, his tail goes almost rigid. The body stiffens and becomes motionless. The hair may bristle and rise along his spine to make him appear bigger.
  2. Wags quickly side to side or in a circular motion. A really happy dog will wag her tail quickly side to side or in a circular motion. This is often matched with an open grin, squinty eyes, flat ears, a relaxed face and a loose, swaying body. Breeds with long, bushy tails, such as the Keeshond, Bernese Mountain Dog and Belgian Tervuven are not shy about showing affection to their favorite people. Breeds with stubby tails, such as Boxers and Rottweilers, cause their tails to appear to vibrate and wiggle their entire bodies or prance on their hind legs to show excitement. This action is clearly communicating that you rock your dog’s world.
  3. Wags slowly, side to side. A cautious or nervous dog holds his tail straight out and wags it slowly and steadily. Stiff tail wagging is indicated by a tail that is parallel to the ground or straight up and moves slowly, but powerfully from side to side. The facial muscles are tense. The dog’s face often projects a “I mean business” posture with tight muscles and steady, unblinking stare. He is also often leaning forward, giving you a warning not quickly approach or touch him.
  4. Tucked. A fearful dog tucks his tail between his legs, pulls his ears back and crouches or cowers in appear to shrink in size. This defensive posture conveys that the dog regards you as higher in rank and he is doing his best to convey he does not plan on challenging you. Timid, low-ranking dogs and young pups show respect to higher-ranking dogs by tucking their tails to indicate that they pose absolutely no hint of trouble.
  5. Little or no tails. It can be harder to interpret what this type of dog is communicating when a dog has a little or no tail. Not all dogs have tails or they may be short or cropped, such as Doberman Pinschers, Boxers and Bulldogs. Or they may be curled, like the Basenji. For these dogs, you need to pay close attention to their entire stance and be on the lookout for their bodies tightening.

Parting advice: When in doubt, accept the most fearful or aggressive signal being given off by the dog. If the back end is acting friendly and the tail is wagging, but the dog is grimacing and looks tense, assume the most dangerous end is telling the truth. If there is fear in any body language sign, then fear is the answer. Better to be safe and greet that dog from a distance.

KEEPING THOSE TAILS HEALTHY

Keeping tails healthy is as important as keeping their ears and mouths healthy. Tails contain many tiny bones and can become injured. They can also be affected by parasites, such as fleas, that can cause skin wounds from intense scratching and biting. It’s best to get in the habit of petting your pet with a purpose by gently gliding your hand all the way down to the tail and looking and feeling for any cuts, bumps, bald spots, swelling, redness or oozing.

Pets with fluffy coats may also sport dried mats of urine or feces that can cause infection and irritation. If you do not feel comfortable clipping these mats using grooming scissors, treat your pet to a bath and hair trimming performed by a professional pet groomer.

Also reach for veterinarian-approved topical sprays and creams to treat skin infections, wounds and hot spots as well as shampoos and leave-on conditioners that deliver relief for itchy, allergic skin, rashes, yeast and bacterial infections. Check out the array of products on the ZYMOX site by clicking here.

Arden MooreArden Moore wears many collars in the pet world. She is a best-selling author, master certified pet first aid/CPR instructor, pet behavior consultant, host of the Oh Behave Show on Pet Life Radio and happy pet parent to a Furry Brady Bunch in Dallas. Learn more at www.ardenmoore.com.