In my opinion, there are two distinct ways a cat wags their tale.
Truth be told, I would only call one form of movement “wagging” strictly speaking, but the other has to be mentioned, and since it has no other good name there’s no way to really talk about it without calling it wagging tentatively.
I like “flicking,” but maybe it could also be called swiping or something? I don’t know…
Please come up with something better if you can, because I know you who have enough experience with cats know there is a difference right off the bat and can tell with a split second which one your cat is doing and whether it’s a good sign or bad sign.
Because yes, one of these “wags” is good and one of them is bad.
So let’s get into describing the difference between the two.
Two Types of Cat Tail Wagging: Calm, Smooth Wagging VS Quick, Anxious Flicking
If you’re not super into cats, you might think a wag is a wag.
Absolutely not so! Cats are not like dogs – dogs only wag their tails (to my knowledge) when they are happy, calm, excited (in a good way!) – basically one dimensional wagging going on here and to my knowledge not a lot of confusion to be had.
With cats there are two types of wags that mean literally polar opposite things and you should react to them in completely opposite ways, so let me try to describe them so that you can really wrap your head around which you’re dealing with.
Tail Wagging 1: The Happy Calm, Smooth Wag
This type of tail wag doesn’t happen in a jerky sort of motion. It’s slow and steady, and can vary in rhythm, but not all that much and it’s more like tapping a beat while listening to smooth, calming, slow tempo jazz music than anything else.
To be honest, it can sometimes look like your cat is beating a rhythm out with their tail.
My cat Avery used to do this on the window sill before bed, there would be a thud to quite a consistent beat for a while while he was hanging out, decompressing before bed, right before he joined me to sleep through the night.
What This Tail Wag Means
This tail wag means your cat’s happy, content with what’s going on, and wants it to keep happening.
If your cat wags his tail in this manner when you pet him, keep petting because he’s having a great time.
He’s chill, down for the cuddle session and doesn’t want it to stop.
Tail Wagging 2: The Flicking Quick, Frantic, & Sometimes Hostile, Anxiety Wag
This second form of wagging is one I haven’t seen all my cats do, and what cats I have that have done it typically only do it when they are really frazzled.
It’s like a tail whip. A quick whoosh that smacks the floor often or just looks erratic and frazzled and a hot mess.
If you took a look at a cat doing this versus the other form of tail wag you absolutely could see the difference between the two.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re not paying attention, but it’s basically a super aggressive, on edge, anxious little swipe of a tail and it’s not good news for any fingers that come near kitty.
Check out Cleo’s glare for a lesson on when not to touch the belly…
What This Tail Wag Means
It means, stop what you’re doing and leave that cat alone, they are not having a good time. Or, if they were playing or being petted by you and enjoying it before – “I’m overstimulated and I need to calm down or I will get hyper/aggressive and this is my warning to stop.”
The cat is also saying that they’re probably going to escalate with some thing more physical (like biting or scratching) to get the point across to you if you don’t get the picture that they think they’re clearly giving you as a warning.
Cleo is the one cat I’ve known well who is legitimately so frequently anxious because she doesn’t really like human interaction that she doesn’t initiate, that’s the exception to this rule, and she depicts perfectly what I believe is the most “Don’t F with me!” tail wag I ever did see!
I don’t think most would see her wag and get any ideas that she was being friendly.
To be fair, it’s almost always accompanied by a stone cold, “Don’t you get any ideas!” stare that no human could mistake if they saw it on another human’s face.
Of course if you weren’t paying attention to the face or the tail and were just caught up in the moment you might have thought that wag was friendly because you weren’t actually looking properly, in which case you’d probably be met by Cleo with a smack on the hand, maybe even a scratch or a bite, depending on how far she thinks you went and what she thinks she needs to do to show you that you will need to back off.
Sometimes she’ll just show you her claws first to make sure you get the picture before she goes as far as to strike…
The Switch: Cats Can Change From Tail Wag 1 to Tail Wag 2 Within Minutes
Sometimes, cats will do both these things, starting with the first, calm type of tail wag, and then over the span of you petting it may morph into the second type, maybe without you noticing because you were watching TV.
Make sure you look over to any cat you’re petting to assess whether the petting is getting to be a little too much frequently.
Because too much of a good thing can easily become a bad thing for any human, let alone a cat.
For example let’s say you’re scratching an itch. Feels so good at first right? But if you keep scratching away, it’s gonna start to hurt, and not be fun anymore, and you’re going to want it to stop.
Same with tickling. A little is fun, too much is too much.
Same goes sometimes for listening to loud music – as much as we can love it when it’s something we love, eventually sometimes we just have enough for the short amount of time because we’ve become too overstimulated and we need a break.
Your cat liking to be pet does not change the fact that he or she may find too much petting, or too firm of a pet, or too long of a time spent being pet, too much over time.
Your cat can love to be pet and switch to an anxious tail wag at any point, it just depends on if that time the petting just happened to become too much.
What do you do in this case? Stop petting your cat, give him or her a little break.
Or if you think you may have been petting your cat too firmly, start petting your cat more gently instead, and stop completely if they’re no longer interested in being pet.
Cats May Be Stress Wagging But Still Want to Sit By You
When most of my cats are fed up with cuddles, or just had enough for a second, they will typically move.
But sometimes they just want to lie there next to you so instead they signal with their tail that the petting is too much so that you can stop and then can fall into a snooze fest of a nap right next to you instead of having to move away.
Your Thoughts on Cat Tail Wagging While Petting?
Now it’s time for you to share your opinions and stories! Have you ever experienced cats wagging their tails while you pet them?
Do you find it quite easy to tell which tail wag means what and have you any other explanation than the ones I’ve listed for why cats might wag their tails?
Do you have a cat who does one or both of these tail wags frequently?
Would love to hear your thoughts and all about your experiences in the comments section down below!