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Function of the Tail in Cats

By: Virginia Wells

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  • What is the tail?

    The tail is the posterior elongated part of a cat that extends beyond the trunk or main part of the body.

  • Where is the tail located?

    The tail is located at the end of the vertebral column. In other words, it is the hind-most part of the backbone.

  • What is the general structure of the tail?

    About 10 percent of a cat's bones are in the tail – up to 20 supple and articulated caudal vertebrae depending on the species, breed and individual. These are largely enclosed by a versatile musculature that make the various segments, especially the tip, capable of finely graded movements that lift the tail, move it from side to side, lower it or curl it around the body. Interestingly, the domestic cat is the only cat species able to hold his tail vertically while walking.

    Part of the musculature is formed from muscles associated with the rectum, the anus, and the pelvic diaphragm. These muscles have many tendons that insert from the fifth or sixth caudal vertebra then onto the next and so on to the end of the tail. The tail is served by four to seven paired nerves.

  • What are the functions of the tail?

    Your cat's tail is sensitive and responsive and often signals his mood and motivation. You can usually tell what your cat is feeling by understanding his tail signs. Some basic signs include:

  • Tail held erect for the full length – friendly greeting to another cat or human
  • Tail curves gently down, then up at the tip – cat relaxed and at peace with the world
  • Tail raised slightly and softly curved – cat becoming interested in something
  • Tail lowered and possibly tucked between the hind legs – sign of defeat or total submissiveness
  • Tail swishing from side to side – angry cat about to attack
  • Tail held still but with tip twitching – mild irritation
  • Tail held to one side – sexual invitation by a female in heat

    But cats don't use their tails to display emotion alone; they use them for balancing, too, although cats without tails also manage nicely. If a cat is walking along a narrow ledge and wants to look to one side, he will automatically shift his tail to the other side to reestablish his body's center of gravity.

    Your cat may swish his tail, too, which adds to his skill as a hunter. By swishing his tail, he mesmerizes his prey. Since your cat can't see his prey if it becomes still, he moves his tail to initiate the slightest movement of his target, which he can then see.

  • What are the common diseases of the tail?

    Cauda equina syndrome

  • What types of diagnostic tests are used to evaluate the tail?

    Various tests are used to diagnose disorders of the tail. These include:

    Radiographs (X-rays)
    Trichogram (microscopic exam of the hair)
    Skin scrapings
    Fungal culture
    Skin biopsy

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