Cats use their body language to communicate with other animals and humans. One of the positions you might have noticed your cat pose in is with an arched back. This is the famous Halloween cat pose with its back stretched upward towards the sky. Most people associate this with a cat feeling fearful and getting ready to attack.
But why do cats arch their back? In some cases, this strange body position is because they sense danger and are trying to make themselves look as large and intimidating as possible. However, they may also do it when you are petting them when they want to play, or simply because they need to stretch out their spine.
In this article, we look at all these reasons and more in detail. As cat owners, we must understand our cat’s body language so we can work out what they are thinking. So, if you have noticed your cat arching its back and want to know what it means, keep on reading!
Most Common Reason: They’re Scared
The most common reason why cats arch their backs is that they are scared. They are trying to make themselves look as large and as threatening as possible to ward off the opposition. Cats that are scared will also spit and hiss, puff out their fur coats, and often walk sideways. They are telling whatever is threatening them to back off!
Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs?
Cats are very flexible creatures known to contort their bodies into all kinds of peculiar shapes. For example, you might see a cat sitting like a human or a cat flop down in front of you and assume many of their strange positions.
One position that is frequently misunderstood is when a cat arches its back. Whenever a cat does this, owners assume their cat is scared and they’ve done something wrong! As mentioned, this is indeed the most common reason why cats arch their backs. However, there are a whole host of other things they could be feeling too.
Here we look at each of these in more depth so you can understand your kitty better and determine what to do next.
1. They Sense Danger
As mentioned, the stereotype of a cat with an arched back is true – cats will often arch their back upwards when they are scared and sense danger lurking nearby. You can usually always tell if your cat is feeling threatened by looking at the rest of their body language. A scared cat with an arched back will also:
- Have their tail curling downwards between their legs
- Be hissing and growling to show discontent
- Have its hair standing on end and pointing upwards
- Be spitting from its mouth and/or showing its teeth
All of these things work to make your cat look more intimidating. Their arched back and spiky hair give the illusion that they are bigger than they really are. Their spitting and aggressive vocalizations also help to scare off any source of danger that might be nearby. In other words, the cat is becoming defensive and protective.
It is important to note that your cat is not looking for a fight or preparing for battle. Despite catfights happening, most felines hate confrontation and will only fight it out if they must. By arching their back they are trying to scare the opposition and make them think twice before advancing. They will only resort to attacking the source of danger if their intimidating body language doesn’t do the trick.
Cats are highly territorial creatures and most of the time their fear will stem from a new animal or person encroaching on their territory. For example, it is common to see a cat hissing at new kittens. They are not used to these new kittens being in their territory and see them as a potential threat initially. The same may be true for new people, especially if you have a shy feline.
If you see your cat arching its back when scared, the best thing you can do is move away. If you retreat, your cat should calm down and they will only attack if the threat doesn’t subside. They are asking to be left alone and warning you that if you don’t things could get nasty, so take heed!
When cats feel threatened, there are usually subtle signs you can watch for before they arch their back. If your cat is hiding and acting weird, freezing in their place, or making strange vocalizations, they’re likely on edge. Also, cats thump their tails when lying down if they feel threatened. I suggest you keep an eye out for these early signs and try to remove the source of danger before your cat has a complete freakout. This will help your cat remain calm and prevent any unwarranted kitty attacks.
2. Pleasure and Contentment
Does your cat arch your back when you pet them? If so, this doesn’t mean your cat is feeling threatened – cats also arch their backs as a sign of pleasure and contentment. Whenever a cat arches its back mid-petting session it is usually a sign that you’re hitting the right spot. It is arching its back to ensure you keep scratching exactly where they want you to.
You can easily differentiate between a scared cat and a content cat as there will be major differences in the rest of their body language. For example, happy cats will typically purr as you pet them and their tail will usually swish gently from side to side or hug their body. Their overall posture will be relaxed, ears in a neutral position, and eyes slowly blinking.
Sometimes, cats act weird when you scratch the base of their tail and you might notice your cat arch its back in the opposite direction. It will curve its spine downwards and stick its rear in the air. This is also another sign of contentment, and there are a few possible explanations for this behavior, including the following:
- Scratching at the base of the tail fire up the same neural pathways as when cats mate. This is an instinctive behavior that happens naturally when the sensitive area at the base of the tail is stimulated.
- Just as with an upward arched back, a cat arching its back and putting its hindquarters in the air could be due to enjoyment. They like the feel of you scratching this spot and are pushing their rear into your hand as a sign not to stop.
- One of the areas that cats produce pheromones from is the base of their tails. They then spread these pheromones to mark what is theirs. Raising their rear in the air could be your cat’s way of claiming you and marking you as family.
Regardless of which way your cat is arching its back, you can keep on stroking them if they are showing the signs of pleasure I have mentioned already. Your cat is clearly enjoying themselves, so keep on giving them the love and attention they’re after.
On the other hand, a cat might arch its back if it becomes overstimulated. This is where the line between pleasure and pain is crossed during petting. Rather than feeling pleasurable, your stroking has become repetitive and uncomfortable. As such, your cat could be arching its back to try and move your hand away.
If this is the reason why your cat is arching its back, it will show other signs of discontent. For example:
- Nipping Your Hand: Whenever my cat bites me when I pet her I know she has had enough. She never bites hard enough to cause pain or draw blood. Rather, it is a gentle nip and her way of communicating that she wants me to stop petting her.
- Raising a Paw: Cats may do the same thing with their paw, batting your hands away from them with their paws. Usually, their claws will not be drawn – they aren’t trying to hurt you but rather get you out the way to avoid confrontation.
- Body Posture: Their body will also be in a much more tense position. Their tails will usually thrash from side to side and you might even see the skin across their back ripple. This happens sporadically when the muscle under the skin becomes overstimulated.
It is also important to note that purring is not a reliable sign of contentment on its own. Cats purr when in pain and when overstimulated. So, you need to ensure you are taking all the different aspects of your cat’s body language into consideration when working out how they are feeling.
It is vital to listen to what your cat is trying to communicate. If you think your cat is overstimulated, stop petting her immediately and walk away. Doing this stopped by my cat biting and attacking me and means we can both enjoy petting without it ever going too far.
4. Skin Sensitivity Issues
Overstimulation happens when you stoke the same area of your cat again and again. However, when a cat immediately arches its back as soon as you go to pet it, it is usually a sign they have extremely sensitive skin. This is causing them to feel pain and discomfort right away and is often caused by an underlying skin condition.
There is a range of conditions that could be responsible for this, for example:
- Ringworm: A parasitic ringworm infection can cause extreme skin sensitivity. This is a fungal infection that causes small round scars on your cat’s skin, scaly and crusty skin, and inflamed areas. Infected cats scratch and itch, making the sores worse.
- Fleas: Fleas are a common parasitic infection in cats. These parasites will bite your cat’s skin causing soreness and itchiness. The symptoms and discomfort caused are worse in cats that are also allergic to flea bites.
- Allergies: Allergies to something in the environment such as pollen, mold, or dust mites can trigger an inflammatory response and increase skin sensitivity. They can cause intense itchiness and ulcerations, which your cat will frequently scratch and overgroom.
- Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is a hereditary disorder that causes defects in collagen production. It is characterized by fragile and loose skin which is thus much more sensitive and tears easily.
The best way to tell if your cat does have an underlying skin condition is to take your torch out and try to look at their skin. All of the above conditions have obvious visible signs, including red skin, sores, pimples, welts, and ulcerations. If you see anything that looks out of the ordinary or if you are worried about your cat, take them to the vet for professional diagnosis and treatment.
Moreover, you should look out for signs of injury as well, such as cuts and scratches from altercations with neighborhood felines. These can also cause your cat to be hypersensitive to touch. They can arch their back as a show of pain and discontentment.
5. Back or Abdominal Pain
Cats could arch their backs as they are experiencing pain in their back or abdomen. Walking with their back in an arched position could feel more comfortable for them because of the discomfort they’re feeling. For example, your cat may have strained a strained muscle in this area which is causing them to hold their body in this unusual position to ease the pain.
Alternatively, your cat could have sustained an injury elsewhere on its body. For instance, a foreign object stuck in your cat’s paw or ingrown nails could cause them to limp and slightly arch its back. Arthritis is also common, particularly in older felines, and causes stiff movements and limping.
You should easily be able to differentiate this explanation from all others on this list because their arches back will be more permanent. You can is not pulling this pose in response to an emotional state such as fear or contentment nor in response to you touching them. Instead, they are arching their back in response to a permanent source of pain.
There are a few other indications of a cat being in permanent pain that you can watch out for too. These include:
- Your cat not wanting to be handled at all
- An increased hiding behavior and a withdrawal from people
- Excessive licking and self-grooming to help cope with stress
- Signs of agitation and a reluctance to settle down
- Your cat may be more aggressive towards others than usual
If any of these symptoms present when your cat is arching its back, it is time to call the vet without hesitation. Your vet will be able to conduct a physical examination and see if there is a medical condition or injury that is causing your cat pain. They’ll then recommend treatment and possibly pain medication to help ease symptoms initially.
6. They Are Playing
Many cats arch their backs when playing. This is especially true for highly energetic kittens. They will arch their back and then playfully hop around before pouncing. This is normal play behavior for cats and mimics how they hunt prey in the wild. They are playing out a potential real-life encounter they could have with prey or another animal.
You should easily be able to tell if your cat is arching its back as it is playing rather than a sign of aggression by looking again at its body language. For one, their fur will not be standing on end and their tail will typically be seen swishing from side to side rather than pointing directly downwards. Playful cats won’t hiss, growl, or spit either.
Additionally, cats that are playing will arch their backs and jump and hop playfully from side to side. In comparison, a cat that feels scared and threatened will turn and walk sideways from the source of danger or walk backward. Don’t get these movements confused with a cat walking weird with its back legs, which is usually a sign they’re not well.
If you think your cat is arching its back to play, pull out its favorite cat toys and initiate playtime. It is important for cats to get the exercise they need to be happy and maintain a healthy weight. Using all their pent-up energy in the day can also stop your cat running around like a maniac at night while making the bond between you even stronger!
To keep things exciting for your kitty, I recommend investing in a range of different cat toys to see what their preference is. My cat loves feather wands and will happily chase them around for hours. I have a selection of other toys too though, including motorized toys, little toy mice, and even automatic cat toys so she can play by herself if I am too busy to entertain her.
7. Simply Stretching
Your cat could simply be arching its back as it needs to stretch. Because of all the strange and contorted positions cats get into, they really need to stretch out those muscles to reset. It feels good to do and helps to ensure they stay flexible and nimble.
Just as we like to stretch from head to toe in the mornings, the most common time you will see your cat stretching out its back is after waking up from a nap. However, as cats are so flexible, their backs are much bendier than ours. Whereas we stretch by elongating our spines in a straight line from head to toe, cats round their spines instead.
Arching their back is not the only way that cats stretch – the position they choose all depends on where on their bodies they are trying to limber up. The arched back position stretches all the muscles in their backs and the vertebrae that make up their spine. Other places you might see your cat stretching include:
- Front Limbs and Chest: Another common stretching position is when cats stick their rear in the air, put their chest towards the floor, and stretch their paws out in front of them. This is a good position for stretching the muscles across the front of their chest and down their front limbs to their paws.
- Hind Legs and Tail: You might also see your cat shift most of their weight onto their front legs while stretching out their back legs behind them. My cat does this as she walks, lifting one leg off the ground and stretching it behind her before swapping. This position is stretching the muscles in the hind legs and tail.
8. Marking Territory
Finally, there is a chance your cat arches its back as it is marking its territory. Cats are highly territorial creatures who mark their home and their owners with their scent. This helps them to feel calm and at ease while informing other cats in the areas that this vicinity belongs to them.
The way cats spread their scent is by transferring pheromones on as many surfaces as possible in the home. These pheromones are produced from glands on cats’ ears, chins, foreheads, cheeks, paw pads, and anal glands. These are transferred to surfaces through rubbing and scratching.
When a cat arches its back, its hindquarters will naturally be displayed. As such, if your cat arches it back and positions its bottom against a piece of furniture or a wall, it could be trying to transfer the pheromones from the anal glands onto the surfaces. This is more common in unneutered male cats who are the most territorial.
Unspayed females can also exhibit this behavior, especially when in heat and looking for a mate. When my cat keeps meowing and rubbing against everything I know she is in heat. She is communicating to other males in the neighborhood both through scent and vocalizations that she is looking for a partner.
What Should I Do When My Cat Arches Its Back?
As there are so many answers to the question “Why do cats arch their backs?”, there is no one set answer on what you should do next. Therefore, the most important thing to do is assess your cat’s overall body language to work out which of the above answers most likely apply. Questions you can ask yourself and next steps are as follows:
- Is my cat showing signs of aggression? For example, making hissing noises and spitting, holding their tail down, and puffing up their fur? If so, your cat is likely scared and best left alone. Retreat from your cat and let them calm down.
- Is my cat arching its back permanently? Are they showing signs of pain and discomfort such as limping and restlessness? If so, your cat might have sustained an injury in its back, abdomen, or elsewhere. You need to take your cat to the vet.
- Is my cat rubbing its hindquarters on furniture or walls? If so, your cat is likely marking their territory. This is normal feline behavior, but if your cat starts spraying to might consider getting your cat neutered if they have not been already.
- Is my cat arching its back when I pet it? Is it showing signs of contentment, such as a relaxed body position, slow blinking eyes, and a gently moving tail? If so, your cat is probably having a great time, so carry on with your petting.
- Is my cat arching its back when I pet it but showing signs of discontent? For example, a thumping tail, dilated pupils, and a tense body posture? If so, your cat might be feeling overstimulated. Stop stroking your cat and walk away from them.
- Does my cat respond poorly to petting and arch its back immediately? Can I see any sores, red patches or skin, or cuts on my cat’s skin? If so, your cat likely has a skin condition or parasitic infection. Take your cat to the vet for treatment.
- Is my cat jumping playfully from side to side? Do they seem to have a lot of energy and are acting playfully? If so, your cat is asking you to play with them. Get out their favorite toys and initiate a play session to relieve their pent-up energy.
- Has my cat just woken up from a catnap? Does my cat seem relaxed and as if they are stretching their muscles? If so, your cat is probably simply doing this! Leave them to it and let them get on with their full body stretches.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
As you can see, the question “Why do cats arch their backs?” has many possible answers. It could be a warning for you or another threat to keep their distance and stay back. Alternatively, they might be communicating that they want to play, marking their territory, or simply stretching out their muscles.
If your cat arches its back while you pet her, it could instead be an indication that you are hitting the right spot and they don’t want you to stop. Comparatively, they might feel overstimulated or feel pain from a skin sensitivity issue or illness. A permanently arched back when walking could indicate a more severe injury or pain-causing medical condition.
With so many possible explanations, you must pay close attention to the rest of your cat’s body language. This will give you more clues on their emotional state and help you to decide your next best course of action.