The truth about tail wagging

Do you know why dogs and cats wag their tails? It's not as simple as you think. Here's the truth about tail wagging

Most dog lovers take it as a positive sign that our furry friends wag their tails. But that might not be the case. Contrary to popular belief, tail wagging isn’t always an indication that a dog is friendly and ready to play. In fact, it’s way of communicating to other dogs, and humans, a variety of different emotions. Much like the subtleties in our facial expressions, little things, such as the position and speed of the tail, can be tell-tale signs of how a dog is feeling. 

When a dog is running around with their friends, visiting their favourite people or being given some tasty treats, they often express excitement in the form of a fast paced tail wag. Obviously, we want to see this in our dogs. And if you own an excitable dog, it would be easy to witness this behaviour and assume all tail wagging is the same. 

However, it’s a burst of many different emotions, triggered for multiple reasons. Positive feelings of excitement, anticipation, relief and intrigue, for example, might caused be seeing a familiar face, playing with a favourite toy, interacting with other dogs, or being greeted by someone they haven’t seen in a long time (for dogs, that’s roughly five minutes!). But tail wagging can also be a sign of fear or anxiety. 

Scientific research into the various meanings of wagging goes as far as to suggest that tails leaning to specific sides of the body present totally different messages. According to scientists, tail wagging to the right means dogs are experiencing positive emotion, whereas movements to the left suggest that they could be feeling bad about something or a specific situation. The reasoning behind this is that the the left side of the brain in animals (and humans) is responsible for positive emotional responses but also the right side of the body - and vice versa.

You’re probably wondering how you’re supposed to distinguish between a left and right tail wag (if you do find an easy way, please let us know!) but other signs are easier to spot. If a dog has its tail down or between their legs (possibly with a slight wag) this is usually a sign of fear and they may need some gentle reassurance. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not happy, but may be feeling a little nervous and cautious, especially in an unfamiliar situation or territory. 

You might also notice a difference in the kind of wag when a dog is expressing negative emotions, such as anger. Compared with a typical ‘excitable’ wag, one showing aggression or hostility can appear more rigid, with very slow and cautious movements.

It’s not just dogs that express their feelings with their tails. There’s a common misconception that cats wag their tails (although not as vigorously as dogs) when they’re angry. That can be the case, but as with dogs, it can also mean excitement, affection or general happiness.

Cats stereotypically don’t present the same dopey and warm traits we associate with dogs but that doesn’t make their feelings are any less complex! For example, when a cat shakes their tail in a rapid motion, it often means that they’re excited and happy. This might happen as it approaches a person they’re happy to see, with their tail upright. 

Slower movements are more of a cause for concern, as this could indicate that they need more personal space, are feeling scared and maybe even angry. In these situations, give them the time and space they need to chill.

Both dogs and cats use their tails as communication devices, much like how we use facial expressions and speech to get our feelings across. By keeping an eye on these differences, we will certainly be able to gauge a better idea of what our pet is thinking – whether that’s Labrador-level excitement or classic ‘leave me alone’ cat behavior.