Why Does My Cat Wag Its Tail? How to Know When Your Pet Is Annoyed

A cat will often use its tail to convey emotions, swishing it from side to side or thumping it on the ground. Each wag can have a different meaning, but new owners in particular might find it tricky to interpret their pet's body language. Below, experts set out what your cat might be trying to tell you with its tail.

Why Does My Cat Wag Its Tail?

It's important to pay attention to what your cat's tail is doing, along with the rest of its body language, animal behaviorist Zazie Todd told Newsweek.

"If it's only a small movement, and if it only involves the tip of the tail, most likely it's just telling you that the cat is paying attention. If it's a bigger, wider swish, then it's most likely a distance-increasing signal—the cat would like more distance between them and you."

Cats also have a "distance-decreasing signal," said Todd, the author of Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy.

"There's a lovely signal where they have the tail straight up, often with a little hook in it, at the top. This is a distance-decreasing signal—a sign that happens between friends, whether that friend is another cat or a person."

What Does a Cat's Tail Wag Mean?

Different cats use signals differently. Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, medical director of Bond Vet in New York City, explained that some swish their tail back and forth when they're excited while others do it when they're unhappy.

"This could mean they are stalking prey or a toy, or maybe they are just watching a bird outside the window. In other cases, a cat indicates that they are annoyed or that they dislike something that is happening by swishing their tail," she told Newsweek.

Here, Vicki Jo Harrison, president of the the International Cat Association, sets out her guide for interpreting tail wags and body language cues:

Low Wagging Tail

"A cat wagging its tail low is generally an indicator that they're scared or anxious," Harrison told Newsweek. "The low wag may be accompanied with pinned-back ears and their body crouched low to the ground."

Low Wag, Tail Tucked Between Legs or Wrapped Around Their Bodies

"If your cat's tail is tucked between their legs, this indicates that they are really scared or may be experiencing pain. When you see this, end your interaction with your cat and ensure that your cat's environment is free of stressors.

"If your cat crouches with their tail curled tightly around their body for more than a few days, then an evaluation by your veterinarian is warranted to rule out pain or illness."

Slow or Quick Swish

"When your cat slowly swishes their tail from side to side, they may be intently focused on something like a toy or another animal. If their tail begins to swish quickly from side to side, it means they are feeling playful and ready to pounce. Their quick swishing tail may be coupled with dilated pupils and forward pointed ears."

Quick Twitch

"If you notice your cat's tail doing a short, quick twitch, it usually indicates they are concentrating, hunting, playing or mildly irritated. Cats typically display this language when they are window watching a small animal or bird. The wagging is often accompanied by chirping or chattering."

cat hunting toy
Stock image of a cat hunting a toy. If your cat swishes its tail from side to side quickly while stalking "prey," it's probably about to pounce. Getty Images

Quivering Tail

"A tail quiver means they're especially excited to see you or another cat. Your cat will approach you with their tail high up in the air and the tip will do a little quivering movement, similar to how a rattlesnake shakes their tail.

"Sometimes, when a cat quivers his tail while holding it straight up and backing up against a vertical surface, they may be urine marking."

Thrashing or Thumping

"When your cat thrashes their tail, or is thumping it on the ground, they are irritated, annoyed or angry. If you're petting your cat and they start thrashing their tail, they are trying to tell you to stop. If you don't, the thrashing tail may be a prelude to hissing, growling, swatting or biting."

Wrapping Tail Around Owners

"When your cat wants to show you affection, they may wrap their tail around your hand, arm or even neck."

Fluffed-Up Tail

"The classic Halloween pose of a puffed tail and arched back indicates they are startled, frightened, or in danger. This is a defensive reaction indicating that your cat wishes to be left alone. They generally do this during a confrontation. They are known to fluff up to try and make themselves look larger and scarier to a predator, which is why they'll arch their back too."

Waving Tail While Lying Down

"Sometimes a cat wagging its tail may indicate that they're in pain or feeling unwell. If your cat's lying down and waving their tail while also not behaving normally—like not eating or hiding—they should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible."

Standing Straight Up

"When a cat's tail is upright, they are feeling social and confident, and approaching in a friendly manner. If your cat approaches you with their tail up, this is a good time to pet or play with them."

Question Mark Shape

"A tail that looks like a question mark—it stands upright and curls at the end— indicates that your cat is happy. This is an invitation to interact with your cat."

How to Tell If a Cat Is Annoyed

Context and body language can help you determine if your cat's swishing tail indicates playfulness or annoyance. Fadl explains that playfulness is more likely if the cat is in a hunting stance, getting ready to pounce on a toy. If your cat is trying to nap and you pet their belly, the swishing tail is probably a warning to stop.

These signals all mean that your cat is upset or annoyed, according to Harrison:

Wagging Tail

"If your cat's tail starts lashing back and forth, this indicates your cat is upset and probably about to pounce."

Pinned Ears

"If a cat is feeling threatened or upset, their ears will turn flat and toward the side. Owners can consider this to be early warnings to back off and stop whatever has prompted the cat to feel threatened."

Constricted Eyes

"If your cat's eyes are big and round and their pupils are the size of pinholes, combined with a lashing tail, this indicates that your cat is upset, agitated, or angry."

The Cold Shoulder

"Much like humans, when a cat is mad with you, they might leave the area you're in or sit and stare at you from across the room, just observing your movements."

Puffing Up

"When a cat is feeling uneasy, gets suddenly startled, or is extremely upset, their fur will puff up. This is something of a defense mechanism to make them look much bigger and much more intimidating."

cat relaxing
Your cat will use its tail and other body language cues to signal when it wants affection and when it wants to be alone. Getty Images