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Why Do Cats Quiver Their Tails?

Cats are communicative creatures. As well as using a wide range of vocal sounds to let people know what they want, they make good use of body language.

Many of the subtle moves a cat displays are performed for a specific reason. However, some cat actions have multiple meanings, such as a vibrating tail. Why do cats quiver their tails?

A cat most commonly quivers its tail when it is happy to see you. At the same time, it will purr and rub its body against you. Many people worry that a quivering tail is an indication that a cat is about to spray urine on them but this is rarely the case – thankfully!

It is true that cats quiver their tails as they urine-mark their territory. They also quiver their tails when they are anxious or upset; this looks like spraying, but no urine is released. A quivering tail can occasionally indicate a neurological disorder.

Black cat with upright tail and tip bent

Why cats quiver and vibrate their tails

A cat uses its tail as a method of communication, in fact, it’s one of its main ways of communicating.

Though kittens and their mothers meow to each other this method of communication stops once the kittens are old enough to leave her.

If you have multiple cats, you’ll probably have noticed that adult cats rarely meow at each other. However, they do use this sound to manipulate humans. These clever creatures quickly learn how we react to this particular sound.

This is supported by the fact that feral adult cats rarely meow; they have not experienced the way people respond when they hear this noise and so have no use for it.

So, if vocalization is not the primary method for cats to communicate with each other, what is?

Cats use scent rubbing, scratching, urine marking, and body posture to communicate. Their general body position, ears, eyes, and tails are excellent indicators of a cat’s emotional state and the message that they are trying to convey.

A cat owner can learn to interpret their cat’s body language, including tail-based communications.

If your cat’s tail is quivering it will be for one of these four reasons:

  • Happiness or excitement
  • Anxious or upset
  • Urine marking
  • Neurological disorder

We explain how to determine why your cat’s vibrating tail – some are more obvious than others!

Cats quiver their tails when they are excited or happy

Dogs wag their tails and sometimes their whole backends when they are happy and excited.

When cats wag their tails, it means something completely different. It means that something has annoyed them or caught their interest. The faster the wagging, the more likely the cat is to attack.

Cats use their tails in a different way to show their extreme pleasure and excitement. An upright tail is often a good indication of positive emotions in a cat.

This includes affiliative behavior for greeting their favorite human and their cat friends too.

If your cat is happy to see you, another cat, or even their food and treats being prepared, it might put its tail straight up into the air, curve the tip into an upside-down ‘U’, and quiver its tail from the base upward.

A cat’s tail can even be puffed out at this time. A puffed-up tail is not normally associated with positive emotions, so context is critical when interpreting your cat’s body language.

Have you ever been excited to the point of getting goosebumps? Well, the same mechanism that gives you goosebumps, a physiological mechanism known as piloerection, is the one that causes a cat’s hair to stand on end. So, they are just so excited that they have goosebumps.

You can also confirm that excitement or happiness is the cause of their tail quivering if your cat displays other body language and behavior associated with pleasure.

A cat that is quivering its tail in joy will also often rub itself on anything and anyone they come across. They also usually start kneading and purring.

When you return home and your cat runs to you with a bushy, quivering tail and rubs itself all over your legs while purring, you really know that you are loved.

If they do this when you bring out the treats, though, don’t be deceived; they are quivering for the treats, not for you!

Ginger kitten with upright, bushed-out tail a position that can be accompanied by quivering

Cats quiver their tails when they are anxious or upset

If your cat backs up to a vertical surface, kneads its back feet, and quivers its tail with its whole tail bolt upright, check the vertical surface afterward.

If there is no sign of urine, your cat is phantom marking or spraying which can be a sign of anxiety or stress.

Concurrent behaviors that will help you to confirm this tail quivering is caused by anxiety or stress include:

  • Abnormal litter tray behavior.
  • Hiding.
  • Inexplicable aggressive or timid behavior.
  • Reluctance to engage in play that they usually enjoy.
  • Excessive grooming.
  • Excessive vocalization.

In this situation, think about what might be causing your cat to feel stressed. Have you changed your cat’s routine recently? Have you introduced a new cat, a dog, or a person into the home? Have you recently moved?

The cause of the anxiety and stress will help you to determine the best method of alleviating your cat’s distress.

Tails quivering and phantom marking or spraying can also be the beginning of territorial spraying behavior. Male and female cats can spray but this is often prevented by neutering/spaying as young as possible.

Cats quiver their tails as they urine mark

You might see your cat across the room, quivering their tail against the door, the curtains, or your new purse!

A new cat owner will probably wonder at this odd behavior, and only a little later will they discover that their cat was actually spraying urine.

Seasoned cat owners usually realize exactly what is happening. Don’t be tempted to leap across the room in an attempt to remove the cat. You’ll scare it and probably make it spray more.

Punishing your cat for spraying is absolutely unacceptable; cats spray for natural reasons, not out of malice.

When a cat sprays, they first reverse against a vertical object, knead their back legs, and quiver their tails. Urine coats the item they intend to mark as their territory.

Remember, one of the most important ways that cats communicate is by smell and scent marking. Cats spray to mark their territory and reduce the chance of having to fight for these domains.

Cats don’t urine mark random spots or items; they will target the highways of their home and any new things that smell strange to them. They will also target the same place for repeated spraying, ‘topping up’ the smell as it were.  

Male cats that have not been sterilized are particularly prone to spraying, but urine marking by neutered males is not at all uncommon. Female cats can also urine-mark, although this is less common.

If your cat’s spraying is getting out of hand, speak to your vet or contact a cat behaviorist.

Black and white kitten with its tail in the quivering position

Cats’ tails can quiver if they have neurological disorders

There is a possibility that your cat is not quivering its tail voluntarily, but rather for reasons that are not under its conscious control.

If you cannot attribute your cat’s tail quivering to any of the aforementioned causes, take your cat to the vet for a health check.

Cats are particularly good at masking illness. Once you have made an appointment, capture your cat’s tail vibrations on video if possible. This way, if your cat doesn’t quiver its tail once at the vets, you can show the recording.

Your vet will be able to determine if your cat is experiencing involuntary tremors that are casing its tail to quiver and hopefully provide any necessary treatement.

Why do cats quiver their tails? Conclusion

Your cat’s quivering tail is a behavior with a range of meanings. It often means they are extremely happy or excited and might do this when you walk into a room, come home from work, start dishing up their food or reach toward the cupboard in which you store the cat treats.

Another emotion that triggers tail quivering in cats is anxiety. This quivering can be mistaken for urine-marking, but no urine is released. Be aware, this phantom spraying can progress into actual urine marking.

Real urine marking is a territorial behavior exhibited by cats. They will quiver their tails just before releasing a stream of oily and pungent urine onto your door, wall, etc.

To distinguish between the different tail quivers is not generally too difficult, but it is helpful to look at the concurrent behaviors and the environment or situation at the time you noticed the behavior.

As a precaution, if you are unable to determine the cause of your cat’s tail quivering, it may indicate a neurological abnormality, and you should take your cat to a vet.