Why do cats lash their tails when they hunt?

After witnessing the Great Hunter Cat chasing after a red laser spot for hours on end, it occurred to me to wonder why cats lash their tails when they’re about to pounce.

Does it alert other cats in the area to prey? If so, why would cats want to share their kill with other cats?

Does it warn off other cats: stay away from me, I’m about to kill?

Why isn’t it a counter-productive thing to do? Aren’t birds and mice and other prey animals (like deer, for larger cats) startled away by the flickering tail?

I think it’s a way of building up momentum for the pounce.

I’m going from memory here, so don’t take this as absolute gospel. In Desmond Morris’s Catwatching, he explains that cats don’t lash their tails when they hunt with as much cover as they’d like. The tail-lashing is a sign of a conflicted cat–in this case, the conflict is between their desire to sneak up a little more closely on the target and their desire to pounce in order to minimize the time that they can be seen.

The book is cheap, and an absolutely fantastic read if you’re interested in cats.

From Catwatching:

Tail swished violently from side to side - this is the conflict signal of tail wagging in its most angry version. If the tail swings very vigorously from side to side it usually means that the animal is about to attack, if it can summon up that last ounce of aggression.


Pulled in two different directions at once, it stands still and wags its tail. Any two opposing urges would produce the same reaction, and only when one of these was the urge to attack - frustrated by fear or some other competing mood - could we say that the cat was wagging its tail because it was angry.

So the cat is angry because it wants to attack but something is preventing it. The author is not specific about that something in the chapter on tail wagging (I haven’t checked the whole book).

(An example of tail wagging not associated with anger is when the cat cries to be let out and the door is opened to reveal a downpour of heavy rain. If it rushes out and stands in the rain its tail will wag, indicating a conflict. It will either rush back into the comfort of the house to avoid the rain or set off to patrol its territory. When it has resolved this conflict it will stop wagging its tail.)

Interesting. Thanks are due to ultrafilter.

For an excellent example of an irate cat wagging it’s tail, you should read www.twolumps.net :smiley:

Desmond Morris is always a fun read. I’m sometimes skeptical, but I’d highly recommend The Naked Ape or The Human Zoo to anyone interested in human biology (especially sexually - alright, alright, I’m a pervert/geek. . . )

I have heard (and this is purely something I picked up from the dregs of my spotty memory, keep in mind), that cats lash their tails, fold back their ears and hiss when threatened because they are trying to imitate snakes. Of course, this has nothing to do with hunting; I just always found it interesting.

Probably, an evolutionary tag from the carnivora. Counterbalance…probably entirely tied up in it’s pendule and the attainment of pinnacle leopard speed. It’s probably endokrine.

…ummm. that should be Cheetah speed.

Did you mean endocrine? :confused:

Thanks for the link, great cartoons of cats!

I remember a Nature episode that asked the same question. They had a number of theories, but none of them was definitive. Another possibility that they offered was that a cat has an easier time puncing on something that is moving. Their prey will often freeze if they smell or see a cat. The twitch of the tail causes the prey to think the cat is moving at them, so they break and run, making it easier for the cat pounce on them. I’ve seen this work with an old semiferal cat I used to have.

From Catwatching:

*It seems likely that the similarity between the hiss of a cat and that of a snake is not accidental. It has been claimed that the feline hiss is a case of protective mimicry. In other words, the cat imitates the snake to give an enemy the impression that it too is venomous and dangerous.

The quality of the hissing is certainly very similar. A threatened cat , faced with a dog or some other predator, produces a sound that is almost identical to that of an angry snake in a similar situation…

…Supporting this idea is the fact that cats often add spitting to hissing. Spitting is another way in which threatened snakes react. Also, the cornered cat may twitch or thrash its tail in a special way, reminiscent of the movements of a snake that is working itself up to strike or flee.*
This comment is accompanied by a photo of a cat. It has its ears folded back.

I could have sworn Cecil did a column on just this question, but I did an archives search on the keyword “cats” and it didn’t come up. IIRC, the article said cats are instinctively compelled to hunt, but they are really evolved to hunt rodents, and there are few in the modern 'burbs. Birds are the next best thing, but the 'burbs also lack the foliage cover which otherwise would render harmless a cat’s (otherwise irrelevant) tail-twitching reflex. So the birds usually get tipped off when a cat is ready to pounce and they usually get away.