Why Do Animals Have Tails?

Updated on January 22, 2018
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.


Learn How To Read The Tale Of The Tails

Just imagine how problematic it would be if we humans had tails. They'd be forever getting caught in our reclining furniture, where would we put them while flying down Space Mountain, and we certainly wouldn't look as great as we now do in a pair of Speedos or yoga pants.

Animals are different, though. Tails are a critical part of their anatomy. Tails enable them to communicate, ambulate and thermal regulate; and some even regenerate. Some times it's hard to tell where the animal's body ends and its tail begins. Take snakes, for instance. Do they even have a tail or are they all tail? They have a tail, but to tell where it begins, you'll have to get pretty personal with the snake.

The right hand edge of the white spot reveals  the slit known as the cloaca.  From that point backward is the snake's tail.
The right hand edge of the white spot reveals the slit known as the cloaca. From that point backward is the snake's tail. | Source

If you could convince it to lie on its back, you'd have to locate the cloaca. Pronounced clo-ache-uh, it's the orifice in egg laying species' through which waste and eggs pass.

In the case of snakes, the cloaca fits the symmetry of the belly plates, which makes it a little more difficult to locate, unless you ask the snake to bend over and cough. So, to simplify things just jiggle it's hiney a bit, and the cloaca will expose itself. From there to the tip of it's tail is the tail.

Other reptiles use their tales as weapons, and formidable ones at that. If you've ever been tail-whipped by an iguana you know what I mean. Some amphibians use their tails as decoys when threatened by predators.

They'll wiggle their tails to lure the predator to attack that appendage, and when it does it will either rip the tail off or the amphibian will jerk itself free from the tail. The disconnected tail continues to wiggle, becoming the focus of the predator's attention and allowing the prey animal to escape. The intended victim simply regenerates a new one over the coming weeks. The new one usually doesn't come back as long or defect-free as the original, but it gives the owner a new lease on life.

A regenerated tail usually won't come back matching the original tail, but the owner lives to once more bask in the sun.
A regenerated tail usually won't come back matching the original tail, but the owner lives to once more bask in the sun. | Source

Other defensive uses of the tail are exemplified by the bee and scorpion, which sting, and the skunk, which must be able to raise the tail in order to deliver it's foul smelling spray.

A little closer to home, we see how dogs and cats use their tails to communicate. The position and/or activity of the tail tells others whether the animal is feeling aggressive, submissive, happy-go-luck, interested or just chillin'.

Squirrels and beavers use their tails to signal alarm. Squirrels will flick their tails back and forth rapidly in the presence of danger, while beavers will smack the water with it, making a fairly thunderous noise. Squirrels also use their tails as umbrellas. Notice the squirrels at your bird feeder the next time it snows.


The tail is an important tool in animal locomotion, too. Notice how precisely a cheetah zig-zags in unison with it's prey during the chase. Without a tail the big cat would probably wipe out at the first zig.

Snow leopards (above) use their huge tails for warmth and to aide in negotiating their rugged habitat by acting as a rudder and helping them to maintain balance.

We little cat owners all marvel at how our pets negotiate knick-knack shelves, mantels, bookcases and other "mine-field" locations without (usually, that is) knocking stuff off.

The really lucky animals, such as New World monkeys, have prehensile tails, which means they can eat a banana, scratch an itch, cuff a cocky juvenile, and groom their neighbor all at the same time because they're holding on to a tree for dear life with their tails.

Wild animals, such as wolves, coyotes, and snow leopards use their tails to help thermal regulate. When it's cold, they sleep with their bushy tails draped over their noses. This protects that noble proboscis from frostbite and helps warm the air they breathe at the same time.

Wild canids, such as this coyote, will use their tails to protect their noses and to warm the air they breathe.
Wild canids, such as this coyote, will use their tails to protect their noses and to warm the air they breathe. | Source

Some birds, such as peacocks and turkeys, use their tails in courtship rituals. They puff themselves up, fan their feathers out and rattle them, which is meant to earn the attention of the hens.

They also use the display as a threat towards their own species or defense-bluff against predators. You might be a turkey if, all puffed up, your last words are, "C'mon,you mangy, smelly, disgusting coyote, make my day."


With all those neat things you can do with a tail, don't you wish you had one? Not me. I'll settle for my opposable thumbs, thank you.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Bob Bamberg


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      • Bob Bamberg profile image

        Bob Bamberg 21 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi, Patricia, nice to hear from you. I got your email, thanks, and replied to it. My cat had a habit of sitting on my chest with her back end to me and swishing her tail back and forth across my nose. I swear she did it just to annoy me, for when she did it I'd re-position her and she'd leave without as much as a glance back. Thanks for stopping by...angels to you and your family as well.

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 21 months ago from sunny Florida

        Hi Bob...first I sent you an email (endeavored to that is...at this point it is not wanting to go through)...so I will check back. I just want to say thank you thank you so very much.

        And in response to this hub, my kitty has a tail to klunk me on the head...I am certain it is a tail hug....but am equally as certain that it is to keep me alert and attentive to all of his needs. Sending Angels to you and yours this evening ps

      • Bob Bamberg profile image

        Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hello rdsparrowriter, nice to meet you. Glad you enjoyed the hub and I appreciate you stopping by to comment.

      • rdsparrowriter profile image

        rdsparrowriter 2 years ago

        Interesting tales about the tails which I didn't know about :)

      • profile image

        Bob Bamberg 5 years ago

        Hi wetnosedogs, good to see you. Watching a dog wag his body with his tail is like watching a 5 year old on Christmas morning, isn't it? Talk about sincere joy...

        Thanks for stopping by. Regards, Bob

      • wetnosedogs profile image

        wetnosedogs 5 years ago from Alabama

        I wouldn't care to have a tail. But I love my dogs tails. My youngest dog gets to wagging her tail, most of her body is moving. Fantastic hub.

      • Bob Bamberg profile image

        Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi Nettlemere, thanks for stopping by. Or how about those snow leopard tails! I agree, tails wouldn't be very becoming on humans, although we did have them at one time, I guess. Isn't the coccyx a vestige of the tails we once had? Regards, Bob

        Hello, Leslie, thanks for reading and commenting. It just goes to show you that even the most mundane topics can be very interesting at times. Thanks for stopping by. Regards, Bob

      • profile image

        lesliebyars 5 years ago

        That was a great hub, very interesting.

      • Nettlemere profile image

        Nettlemere 5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

        I've occasionally found myself imaging human tails and I think they'd look scrawny, bare and unattractive and we'd find ourselves envious of the lovely and useful tails of dogs or beavers!