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Structure and 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. It is the hind-most part of the backbone.

What is the General Structure of the Tail?

The tail is composed of up to 20 supple and articulated caudal vertebrae, depending on the species, breed and individual. These vertebrae are enclosed by a versatile musculature making the various segments, especially the tip, capable of finely graded movements that lift the tail, move it from side to side, or draw it down toward the anus or between the hind legs. The caudal or tail muscles lie on the lumbar vertebrae and sacrum (of the lower back) and tail vertebrae, and insert on the caudal (tail) vertebrae exclusively. The muscles are attached to the tail vertebrae by tendons. The most posterior tendons attach to the last tail vertebrae.

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

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 watching his tail movements. Some basic movements and their significance are listed below:

  • 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 or cat about to attack in a predatory fashion
  • Tail held still but with tip twitching – mild irritation
  • Tail held to one side – sexual invitation by a female in heat

    Cats don't only use their tails to display emotion; they also use them for balancing (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 reposition his body's center of gravity, so that it remains directly over the ledge.

    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 well if it becomes still, he moves his tail to entice small movements by his target, which he can then see.

    What are Common Diseases of the Tail?

  • Congenital malformation or absence of the tail
  • Trauma – with fractures or dislocations of the vertebrae, wounds to the soft tissues, and possibly paralysis of the tail
  • Alopecia – loss of hair on the tail
  • Stud-tail – an oily thickening of the top of the base of the tail
  • Tumors of the tail – both benign and malignant

    What Types of Diagnostic Tests are Used to Evaluate the Tail?

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

  • X-rays)
  • Trichogram (microscopic exam of the hair)
  • Skin scrapings
  • Fungal culture
  • Skin biopsy or biopsy of masses
  • Electrodiagnostic testing on the muscles and nerves of the tail
  • Possibly CT scan or MRI of the lower back

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