One of the first steps in learning to speak your cat’s language is understanding that their tail is a major means of communication. It can tell you when they’re feeling angry, playful, or scared—all you have to do is pay attention.
One of the cat’s favorite things to do with their tail is wrapped around their paws. It happens when they’re sitting upright and curled up looking cozy on the couch. It’s a seemingly innocent gesture, but the placement of their tail carefully over their paws isn’t an accident. Here’s what it could mean.
Like when you tuck your toes under a blanket or curl them under your body to keep warm, cats use their tails to help conserve body heat. Even with all that fur, cats are most comfortable when the temperature is at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it drops below freezing, they’re at risk of hypothermia and even frostbite.
You’ll be able to tell if your cat is wrapping their tail in order to keep warm by looking at other body signals. According to Veterinary News, cats that are cold crouch low close to the ground. They fold their ears against their heads, cover their noses, and do their best to be as small as possible. If they’re sitting upright, they’re leaving their ears, nose, and belly exposed, so they’re most likely not cold.
If you’re able to rule out winter weather, a cat with their tail draped over their paws could be putting on a passive display of evasion. It’s their way of saying they’d prefer to be left alone. They’re relaxed and comfortable as they are, and they’d rather their humans not get in the way. They’re not in the kind of bad mood that’ll warrant a swat or hiss if you get too close, but they’re also not inviting attention.
Before you take it personally, this apathetic gesture doesn’t mean the cat dislikes the people or animals around them. Certain cats value alone time and occasionally prefer to observe their surroundings without direct interaction. If that’s the case, respect their space. When they’re ready to join in, they’ll let you know with a change in body language.
Sometimes, the tail over the paws is a combination of passive evasion and a show of nerves. There’s a good chance an alert cat sitting upright with their tail wrapped around their body is watching something they’re not exactly comfortable with. It could be the dog getting into trouble on the other side of the room or their owner coming at them with a brush. The tail placed strategically around their body creates a physical barrier to separate the cat from whatever’s causing them concern.
Consider the tail over the paws to be similar to a person crossing their arms. In human body language, crossed arms are a classic defensive maneuver. People cross their arms when they feel threatened, nervous, and generally uncomfortable. A shy person might cross their arms in the middle of a crowded room or when someone tells them something they don’t want to hear. Cats respond similarly to humans, and wrapping their tail around their bodies is a way of saying they’re not going to get aggressive, but they’re also not completely happy.