Tail chasing is something that many dogs do, particularly of course those with long tails – but a reasonable number of cats also seem to have a lot of fun chasing their own tails too.
Prey drive and hunting instincts
First of all, the humble domestic cat is often described as “the perfect hunting mammal,” and in terms of the cat’s conformation and instinctive behaviours, cats are simply designed to be excellent hunters without equal.
When your cat chases their tail, this is a type of play that triggers the cat’s instinctive prey drive, and so provides a mental reward for them. Whether your cat first spotted the tip of their tail from the corner of their eye and decided to try to catch it or if they seem to begin from a standing start and circle their own tails as if it was prey, your cat is almost certainly aware that their tail is the target, and they are able to moderate their behaviour so that if they do catch hold of the end of their tail they won’t do themselves any harm.
Cats have very keen vision to pick out movement – much more acute than the cat’s vision for things that are static. Cats don’t see a well in full daylight as they do in dimmer light too, and so particularly during the daytime, movement is much more distinctive to your cat than things that remain still.
This ability to pick out small movements and the patience to sit for long periods of time waiting to spot movement is something most of us have seen our cats display – in hunting cats, you may have seen them sitting very still staring into bushes or undergrowth before suddenly pouncing on something that they have seen, or potentially been watching for some time.
Your cat’s field of vision allows them to pick out the end of their tail in the corner of their eye, and if their tail is twitching or moving, the same movement fixation that they apply to hunting and finding prey triggers an instinct for your cat to check it out.
Burning off excess energy levels
Cats sleep for longer each day than they spend awake, and when they are very active they tend to be active in short, intense bursts of energy. This manifests in behaviour like your cat spending five minutes running around the house in between long naps!
When your cat feels the urge to stretch their legs and burn off some energy, they will look for things to do to entertain themselves with and for some cats, their go-to trigger for a five-minute fit of energetic activity is their own tail.
Garnering a response from you
If your cat chasing their tail makes you laugh, interact with them or otherwise provide feedback and some form of a reward, your cat might begin to do this more regularly, as they know that it will garner a response from you.
You may have noticed similar behaviour if your cat immediately begins to focus and go into hunter mode when you pick up their favourite toy.
Is anything amiss?
A cat chasing their own tail might look funny, but the vast majority of the time it is just your cat being silly and having fun while at play. However, in rare cases, your cat might be chasing their tail because something is bothering them – like perhaps a flea infestation (fleas often congregate in large numbers at the base of the tail), a skin allergy, or pain and discomfort.
If your cat’s tail chasing is obsessive or something appears to be wrong, ask your vet to check them out and make sure everything is ok with their tail and general health, to ensure that your cat’s tail-chasing really is just playtime for them.