Tuesday 15 November 2011

Why are cats' tails so long?

Are cats tails so long? It is all relative and subjective. But some cat's tails are longer than others. If the cat is a domestic cat there is no pressing reason why his or her tail should be longer than that of another cat other than the physical characteristics of the cat as dictated by his genetic makeup (genotype). There will be no demanding functional need for a long tail.

The situation is different for the wild cats. You will see long, thick, heavy and well insulated tails on cats that do a lot of high risk climbing and maneuvering. Wild cat species that come immediately to mind are the snow leopard, margay and clouded leopard.

I believe what needs to be stated is that the length of a cat's tail has been dictated by evolution over millions of years. The tail is a perfect length for the function that it needs to perform which as mentioned below is to help a cat balance when performing manoeuvres which are tricky at high elevations. For example, walking along a branch of a tree for a domestic cat or a tree-dwelling wild cat species (margay). Because evolution has a sort of perfection about it you cannot state that the tail is so long or too long or too short. It is a perfect length for its desired primary function.

A secondary function is as a signal to another cat that the approaching cat is friendly. This is when the tail is placed in an erect position called "tail-up". Another secondary, inadvertent function, is that it signals an indecisive mind. When the mind flicks between two possible decisions the tail follows as if metaphorically speaking it is keeping the cat's mind in balance.

Snow leopard tail - cropped image to highlight tail
You won't see a better tail. Photo: by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar

The snow leopard has perhaps the most impressive of tails. It is far longer and thicker than anything seen on a domestic cat relative to the size of the cat. This is because the snow leopard spends a lot of its time on 40 degree rocky slopes. And the tail is needed to assist in balance. The other two are tree dwelling cats.

This requirement applies to all cats. The cheetah, a ground dwelling cat uses its tail for balance in maneuvering on the ground when chasing prey.The serval has a relatively short tail. The serval is very much a terrestrial cat.

Domestic cats use the tail for balance too, but also for body language communication. See for example: Tail up.


  1. Snow leopards don't use their tails just for balance. They can also cover their cute muzzle with their tail - which is very helpful in a cold climate. (A clouded leopard could do it too, but has no need for it because it lives in a hot climate.)
    Perhaps you've seen this picture: a snow leopard holding its tail in its mouth and thinking (a comic book "thought bubble" over its head): "Why do dogs find it so difficult?". ;)


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