Tales of tailless cats

An investigation

Emma Roberts

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

23 July 2014

Emma Roberts uncovers one of the greatest mysteries encountered by many on South East Asia journeys.

One of the first things many travelers in South East Asia wonder is why the local cats have either stubbed tails, kinked tails or simply no tails at all. Ok, perhaps I’m generalising too much; this is probably a question only pondered by cat-lovers like myself. However, it is nevertheless a question which I had long contemplated and thus a question I felt to be worthy of an answer. After years of imagining disgruntled housewives releasing their frustrations on the neighbourhood cat with their kitchen knives, I decided that it was time to find a resolution for my frantic mind.

While visiting Indonesia last year I made it my mission to get to the bottom of this vital matter. I was expecting the answer to this seemingly simple question to be a relatively straightforward one, and in many respects it was. However my journey of arriving at the answer was definitely far more convoluted than I might have anticipated.

The main obstacle I faced in my investigation was that Indonesian people generally don’t like to think about cats very much, and thus had never turned their minds to what I perceived to be an incredibly important concern. When I asked people about why the cats in their country are tailless many responded with something along the lines of “Are they supposed to have tails?”, however the most common response was definitely “Why does it matter?”.

I was determined not to allow other peoples’ lack of enthusiasm for this issue to hinder me from finding the answer. I decided to try a different tactic – Google – and then return to my Indonesian friends armed with the search engine’s eternal wisdom to hear their comments on what it suggested.

As was to be expected, Google yielded quite a few explanations for South East Asia’s tailless cats, some more believable than others. One expat claimed to have witnessed children in Thailand picking stray cats up by their tails and swinging them around in circles until their tails fell off. Another writer suggested that the consumption of sushi by Indonesia’s cats during the Japanese occupation could have led to malnutrition and thus a permanent tail-growth defect. Yet another person claimed that cat owners cut the tails off their beloved pets and buried them under the doormat to ensure they would not escape from home (however if you ask me, having my tail removed would probably give me a greater incentive to escape). Probably the most bizarre explanation I found was a Chinese folktale in which a princess went to bathe in her pool but needed to remove her ring before doing so and had nowhere else to safely place it except around her cat’s tail. Eventually the cat’s tail rotted and fell off, and every cat descended from that one has been born without a tail.

Needless to say, when I pitched these hypotheses to my Indonesian friends they didn’t lend much credibility to any of them (although quite a few laughs were had). After much consideration I also finally convinced myself that, although it would make a great story for any of the above to be true, I was yet to find the correct answer to my question. I had to keep searching.

Because some of the cats in South East Asia have little crooked or kinked tails instead of being entirely tailless, a part of me was still inclined to believe that the mostly likely explanation had something to do with tail severance by humans. However, whenever I suggested this possibility to my Indonesian friends most of them were quick to deny it – people would never cut cats’ tails, they said. Nevertheless there were a couple of people who considered that maybe tail severance isn’t completely out of the picture. They speculated that perhaps cat owners did it to show that their cat is homed and not stray, or simply for aesthetic purposes.

Based on these discussions I was beginning to believe that, in the absence of any more likely alternative, perhaps my original hypothesis of angry housewives cutting cats’ tails was not so far from the truth after all. This made me sad. I really love Indonesia and its people, but I also really like cats. I felt upset by the fact that my two passions did not interconnect well with one another.

However, I luckily did not need to be sad for too long because it was only a few days after coming to this conclusion that one of my dear friends (who I had somehow managed to overlook in my questioning) finally disproved the angry-housewife theory. She had heard about my investigations from some of our mutual friends and sent me a message inviting me to come and visit her. When I turned up at her house I was absolutely overwhelmed by cat-cuteness when I found not one but EIGHT tiny kittens, all with little stub-tails. After my friend swore to me that she definitely had not cut them (I was still feeling slightly skeptical), I finally came to the realisation that South East Asian cats are tailless for no reason more exciting than that they are born that way.

After finally forcing myself away from the gorgeous kittens I decided to consult Google once again to find out more. Armed with the new search term of “short tail genetic defect in cats” I managed to find much more credible results. It seems that the short-tail gene carried by Japanese Bobtail cats and Siamese cats (who interestingly have naturally short, kinked tails which have been bred out in Western countries for aesthetic reasons) has gradually spread all over Asia to the extent that it has become the norm in many countries. Although the short-tail gene is recessive, in-breeding between stray cats has encouraged its prominence.

I could barely believe that, after all of the crazy internet theories, the answer to my question was so simple and obvious. Somehow the idea of cats being born with short or no tails had not even been within the scope of my imagination. My investigation has reiterated to me that only staying in your home country really does restrict your life experience – after all, if I had never ventured outside of Australia I never would have learnt about the existence of tailless cats!

Well, I know that was a very lengthy discussion about a matter which, if you are like most of my Indonesian friends, you probably feel was entirely pointless. But to all my fellow cat-lovers out there, I know you will appreciate the significance of my investigation and the peace of mind it has provided you with. As long as my dear friend was indeed telling the truth about not having cut her cats’ tails, I can assure you that those gorgeous tailless kitties you’ll meet on your next trip to South East Asia have not had to endure anything as brutal as an angry housewive’s kitchen knife.

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  1. I am sitting here in southern Laos wondering the same thing. One Siri search later and you have allayed my fears in a nice and amusing way. Thank you! Namaste.

  2. juliahopson says:

    Thank you, Emma, for answering our ponderings last night! We are currently in Laos on an island in the very south and all the cats here are tail-less – as are many we have seen on our travels. Being cat lovers we, finally, looked it up and found your highly informative article. The Isle of Man (off the UK) also has tail-less cats so, presumably, that’s a genetic thing too.

  3. Louise says:

    This has definitely put my mind at ease as I am too, a cat lover! Couldn’t bare to think of what people might do to them but I’m glad they are just born this way 🙂 thank you for investigating!

  4. morenlinner says:

    Thank you! I’m in Thailand and have been feeling the exact same fear as you. This doesn’t only explain all the tail-less stray cats, but also why the cats with collars seem more likely to have a tail: They might just be imported, or descendants of imported or less inbred cats. I can’t wait to break the happy news to my cat-loving partner!

  5. Rob Worrall says:

    So glad I read this as I am still wondering why my new feline friend in the Philippines (where we now live) is the odd one out as he has a perfect tail unlike all the other local cats. He is a Tabby cat and I have been trying to gain his trust over the last few weeks and have finally succeeded by bribing him with tuna and chicken! he is different in that he seems much more like a regular cat from the UK (like me), there seems to be a lot of tabbies around here but he is the only one with a full perfect tail and I couldn’t understand why! I never thought he would accept humans as they all seem so wary here and he seemed very wild at first but now he won’t leave my side and acts like an old friend so we are both happy as I have a friend and he has good food on tap! It seems like the old saying that cats recognize cat lovers must be true.

  6. elmayes says:

    I have been wondering this during my trip in South East Asia and I am pleased to have found your article after a quick google search to put my mind at ease.

  7. birashanuman says:

    Here in Suphanburi,Thailand, my cat gave birth to five kittens on Feb 23rd this year: Four of them had the abbreviated, kinked tail, synonymous with SE Asian cats ,whilst the fifth was equipped with a normal ‘ western’ long tail. All had different colourings and markings .
    When I told neighbours my cat had given birth to five kittens their first question was” Do any of them have long tails ? ”
    A sign of good fortune perhaps ?

  8. Marissa a. says:

    Hello Emma!
    Thanks for this article. My fiance and I are currently in Bangkok and have noticed a lot of bobtailed cats. We have a Manx cat at home (no tail at all) so we were sure the cause for the ones we were seeing was some recessive mutation which was so rampant due to breeding between stray cats. Happy to see out theory was right and that other people also notice the small things! Also fun to know this is common in all of southeast asia!

  9. tutleymutley says:

    Emma – another one who was wondering about the kink tailed cats in Bangkok (this is my second day here) and very grateful for your investigation. I thought the first one had suffered a squashed tail incident – then I saw more and more!

  10. Thank you so much! I’ve been wondering about these cats for SO LONG.

  11. anelca says:

    I am currently in Cambodia, having spent the last 3 weeks travelling in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
    I have noticed this and wondered about in all countries except Thailand where it was less common.
    I am glad to read that it is genetic, rather than physical damage

  12. jesper vinge says:

    Interesting. Lived in Asian countries for 10 years and wondered about this so much as well. The funny thing is that most Asian people, as you describe, couldn’t care less. Currently in Vietnam and took in a stray kitten 3 weeks ago. Also missing its tail. Thanks for the article.

  13. Nath says:

    Thank you and Google’s eternal wisdom 🙂 First time in southeast Asia and obviously I was looking for an answer. My initial hypothesis, based on Thailand’s driving patterns, was that they all get run by a motorbike 🙂

  14. Gee says:

    Thank you for this great article- not at all pointless! I had certainly never seen a short-tailed cat and at first immediately assumed the worst as well! It was only when I recently started volunteering at Cat Beach Sanctuary in Penang that the real genetic reason was explained! Happy Travels 🙂

  15. Barrington says:

    I also needed to know. Very interesting. I also get “why do you care “about a lot of questions I ask. Barry
    Korat. Thailand

  16. Barrington says:

    Why do you have the time in seconds at traffic lights in Thailand. Pointless. Responses were “who cares”

  17. Ally says:

    I’m currently sitting in a restaurant in Cambodia sneakily feeding the tailless cats so the workers don’t see & have thought about why their tails are like that for some time now. I’m glad my worries have been put to rest & I have nothing to worry about (well, less)

  18. Jessie says:

    Thank you so much for this investigation! My boyfriend and I have been travelling throughout South East Asia and are now in Thailand and we couldn’t stop wondering why most of the cute kitties we’ve seen have short, kinked tails! I imagined the worst as you did but I am so relieved to hear that it isn’t a result of humans. We did notice that a lot of the cats with collars (throughout Thailand) seem to have normal long tails. One of the above commenters said this may be because it is good luck for a kitten to be born with a long tail. Anyways, thanks so much for getting to the bottom of this!

  19. Helen Jolly says:

    Thanks for an interesting, entertaining and well written answer to a question I first asked myself in Thailand and now again in Malaysia. So happy to find your explanation and no cast cruelty! <3

  20. AventureNouk says:

    We are so happy to have found an explanation to a matter that was occupying our thoughts for the last weeks. We have been to different part of Laos and are now in Phimai, Bangkok. We have the cutest longtail baby cat and a bigger yellow kinked tail cat as neighbor. So the question kept being unanswered; but there it is. We couldn’t bare thinking it was somehow cut to prevent cat from having “cat-like behavior”, and our Thai (I am not even going to talk about our Lao) isn’t good enough to begin a conversation in Wich to enter that subject.

    Thank you for your interest and for demystifying the matter. 🙂
    Can’t wait to tell my cat I saw fellow Asian cats, all with their own differences (as we do!).

  21. Lisa says:

    I am in Phuket Thailand wondering and googling. I hope you are right!

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