Cats are pretty amazing creatures–they can see in the dark, leap great distances in a single bound, and perform spectacular acts of contortion. They also possess what some call a “fifth limb”–the super swishy, sometimes poofy, always busy, appendage that is a cat’s tail. A cat’s tail serves both physical and emotional purposes, making it something quite interesting to know about. The more you know about your kitty’s anatomy, the more you know about your kitty. So what important purposes do these expressive appendages serve, exactly?
What Do Cats’ Tails “Do”?
A cat’s tail is nature’s ingenious invention for providing cats with their incredible sense of balance. In both wild and domestic cats the tail serves as a counterbalance allowing them to gracefully balance on narrow surfaces as well as in jumping and running to play or pursue prey.
This counterbalance was famously caught by the BBC in a dramatic video of a snow leopard for its Planet Earth series but you can see it in your own house just by watching your cat’s tail as they balance and jump. The tail movements so obvious in the video are replicated by kitties in our homes–as they jump up, their tails go up or down, as they swerve one way, their tails swerve another. This counterbalance allows for the spryness cats are famous for.
Another thing cats are famous for is always landing on their feet. While most cat people know this saying should probably read “cats almost always land on their feet”, it is not expressly their tails that are responsible for this incredible ability. Called the “cat righting reflex” this ability is innate and due mostly to the flexibility of kitty spines and a superior vestibular system. Example: even cats without tails mostly always land on their feet. It’s a fascinating feat of physics that even physicists don’t quite understand.
What is understood about cat tails, aside from their physical usefulness, is that they are also important emotional indicators. Cats most definitely talk with their tails; the gentle curve, slow swish, or full poof of a tail can tell you a lot about how a cat is feeling. While wild cats don’t have the ability to hold their tails upright, domestic cats do, and they will tell you a lot with this amazing appendage as long as you are paying attention.
The Mechanics of Cat Tails
A cat’s tail averages 12 inches in length, contains about 10 percent of the bones in the feline body, and is made of 19 to 23 vertebrae that extend from the spine, though are not part of the spinal cord. The tail also contains a complex system of nerves, ligaments, and tendons that influence everything from tail swishing to hindquarter mobility. Some cats are born with bobbed or kinked tails, either by breed, genetic anomaly, or injury during birth–none of which are known to seriously affect a kitty’s ability to balance.
Can Cats Break Their Tails?
Because of the complex construction of kitty tails, injuries can definitely happen. Many times, these are due to falls, accidents (such as a tail getting caught in a closing door or stepped on), or improper handling such as tail pulling. As veterinarian Lynn Buzhardt of VCA animal hospitals explains, “avulsion injuries, caused when the tail is pulled strenuously, may stretch or tear nerves, while breaks near the base of the tail may sever nerves.” Nerve damage can not only affect a kitty’s balance but also general mobility, urination, and defecation.
If, for some reason, you have developed a habit of tail-pulling, a smart idea might be to instead treat your kitty to light pats on the bottom around the base of his tail. It could save you both a lot of pain in the long run. If you suspect your kitty’s tail may have seen some trauma, consult your veterinarian right away.
What if My Cat Has No Tail?
While most cats have tails there are some breeds, such as the Manx, that don’t and in general it’s no problem. These kitties have been bred or evolved with shorter tails or nubs and their bodies easily compensate. Cats who have damaged, or even amputated, tails cans also learn how to compensate as long as there is no permanent nerve damage associated with the injury.
Zibby Wilder is a writer specializing in food, wine, travel/tourism, personalities and histories of place. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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