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Why Do Cats Chase Their Tails?

As well as being a great source of pleasure, cats can also be extremely entertaining. Tail chasing is just one quirky cat habit a cat has that looks funny but at the same time makes us wonder why they do it. Is cat tail-chasing an instinctive behavior?

Kittens and young cats chase their own tails for fun but with older cats, though it looks amusing, it can be an act of compulsion rather than an innocent game. When an adult cat chases its tail, there’s a good chance it’s feeling bored or anxious, a situation owners should endeavor to resolve.

A cat on a cat tree chasing its tail.

When you should worry about cat tail chasing

If an adult cat obsessively chases its own tail to the point of frustration or exhaustion, it’s time to be concerned.

A tail-chasing game lasts a few seconds as is obviously spur-of-the-moment fun. However, if a cat incessantly chases its tail several times a day, there’s a strong chance it is suffering from boredom.

Cat boredom occurs for several reasons as follows:

Lonely

Cats are sociable creatures and enjoy the company of people and other animals.

If you are out for long spells at a time and your cat is left alone, it can become bored.

The ideal solution is to always have at least two cats or a cat and a dog. They will naturally keep each other company which reduces the chance of boredom (and your cat chasing its tail!)

Lack of stimulation

Intelligent creatures need mental stimulation and cats definitely fall into this category. A cat really benefits from daily play sessions and a variety of toys to keep this fresh and interesting.

You can also prevent boredom by talking to your cat and making a fuss of it whenever possible.

Follow this advice and you should never witness boredom tail chasing in your cat.

Lack of activity

Space to be active is important for cats. Access to a secure outside space offers a chance for your cat to burn off energy but if you don’t have this, make sure your cat has room to let off steam inside.

A great way to keep an indoor cat active is to invest in a cat tree. Choose a sturdy, one as tall as you can find and your cat will have fun scaling it, scratching it and lounging on it.

We’ve recently bought the one pictured below. It’s a hit with our Maine Coon kittens and is sturdy enough for our large Maine Coon adults too. It’s available on Amazon – here’s a link to see more details and the price.

Two kittens in a cat tree.

Other reasons for cat tail-chasing

There are many reasons why cats chase their tails. Some are perfectly natural and not a cause for concern but others are a sign of an underlying problem.

Tail chasing out of instinct and curiosity

Cats are instinctive hunters, so when a kitten first spots its tail in its peripheral vision, a natural response is often to try and catch it. As they move, it moves. Thus, tail-chasing begins.

Cats are also naturally curious creatures. Kittens who are just starting to explore their world are fascinating and often entertaining to watch.

Have you ever watched a baby discover its hand or foot? This curious, moving object transfixes them, and they need to learn that it’s a part of their bodies.

Well, kittens don’t really know that they have tails. They see something flickering out of the corner of their eye, and they wonder what it can be.

Just as a baby grabs one foot, brings it closer to its face, and tries to put it in their mouth, a kitten will want to get this fluffy object that’s following it around closer to its face so they can examine it. But it keeps moving, so they have to pursue it.

Playful tail-chasing

Even once they know that their tail belongs to them, a cat will still chase it while playing. Kittens are more likely to engage in play with their tails than adult cats.

Playful tail-chasing is not uncommon in adult cats, but those who still play with their tails will probably chase them less often than they did when they were kittens.  

If you are worried about tail-chasing behavior, look at the situation and your cat’s other actions and body language to gauge if something is wrong.

Also, look at what they do when they catch their tail. If they give it a few licks and let it go, then there’s probably no issue. If they start to lick it vigorously or even bite it, this can indicate a problem. 

Discomfort or pain

If your cat’s tail is injured in any way, it might look like it’s chasing it when really it’s trying to reach a source of pain. Once it gets hold of its tail for this reason, a cat often licks or gnaws at the troubled area.

Similarly, if your cat has a tick or fleas on its tail, this can cause discomfort, itching, or pain, which your cat will want to scratch or lick.

You should be able to eliminate these reasons for a cat chasing its tail by carrying out an inspection and providing any first aid or other treatment required.

If there’s an injury, you should take your cat straight to the vet.

A ginger fluffy cat chasing its tail in the garden.

Anxiety or distress

Sometimes, a distressed cat will obsessively chase its tail. It may even become aggressive, and attack its tail when it catches it.

A variety of things can trigger anxiety or distress in a cat, including the following:

  • Being left alone too long and too often.
  • The introduction of a new pet, roommate, or baby into the home.
  • Guests, especially if they try to handle your cat.
  • Moving into a new house.
  • Being locked in when they are used to going outside.

Observe your cat and try to find a link between an event or situation and their tail-chasing behavior.

Try to eliminate the cause of a cat’s distress. For example, allow your cat to hide when guests come over or ask them not to try to make a fuss of the cat.

Of course, there are some situations you can’t eliminate, like a new baby. In these situations, provide your cat with reassurance by keeping to regular mealtime routines, giving it attention, and treats.

Other signs of cat stress include increased vocalization, abnormal litter tray behavior, reduced appetite, and excessive grooming.

As anxiety-induced tail-chasing can turn into obsessive behavior and can lead to self-mutilation, stop your cat from doing this when they start.

Don’t punish your cat or shout, as this can increase your cat’s emotional distress. Try to distract them. There is a tricky balance to find in doing this, however.

If you pay attention to your cat every time that they tail-chase, they can continue doing it when they want you to focus on them.

Speak to a veterinarian or a cat-behaviorist to help you deal with this behavior if you cannot stop them yourself.

Feline Hyperesthesia

This is also known as rippling skin syndrome and the cause is unknown.

Some people believe it is an obsessive-compulsive disorder; others think there is a seizure-like neurological trigger. This condition can occur in cats of any age, but it is more frequently seen in adult cats.

In response to someone touching their back, or for seemingly no reason, the skin on the back of a cat with hyperesthesia will start twitching and will look like it is rippling or rolling down their back toward their tail.

During an attack, a cat’s eyes will be wide open, and its pupils dilated. It may start scratching, licking, and even biting at the skin on its back.

The cat may suddenly take off running, seemingly trying to escape its skin. Some people even report signs that their cats are hallucinating.

As these ripples spread to a cat’s tail, it may start chasing it. If they catch it, they will lick it vigorously or may even bite it. These attacks can stop as suddenly as they began, and they can become progressively worse.

You can take your cat to see a veterinarian, but as the cause of this condition is unknown, there is little chance of successful treatment or cure at this stage.

Why do cats chase their tails? Conclusion

Cats chase their tails as a natural response to their hunting instinct. Their tail moves in their peripheral vision, and they pounce.

Curious kittens also chase their tails because they don’t know that this appendage is a part of their body.

Throughout kittenhood and sometimes into adulthood (although less frequently), cats will playfully chase their tails.

Not all tail-chasing is healthy, particularly in adult cats. It can indicate that they are bored or anxious, and it can even turn into obsessive behavior.

Try to minimize the stressful situations your cat faces, reassure them, distract them when they begin to display this behavior and provide them with plenty of other stimulation.

Medical conditions can lead to tail-chasing as well. Rear-end pain or discomfort from injury, infection, or parasites can cause your cat to chase its tail. Feline hyperesthesia can also cause tail-chasing.

Because not all tail-chasing is normal, you need to be vigilant. Trust that you know your cat and will be able to recognize when something isn’t right. But always take your cat to the vets if there is any indication of abnormality in their behavior.

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