We’ve all seen it: the iconic “scaredy-cat” pose with the arched back and raised fur. This image is plastered everywhere around Halloween. Many people assume when cats arch their backs, it means they’re scared or ready to fight, but this isn’t always the case. Cats assume this position for many reasons, and we’ll discuss each one. So why is your cat arching their back? Let’s explore.
The Root of the Behavior
Cats arch their back for all sorts of reasons, sometimes simply because it feels good. After all, there's nothing like a good stretch after a cat nap to warm up your muscles — and cats feel the same way! Cats arching their back to stretch will usually have their head low, legs outstretched, and relaxed squinting eyes. Cats may also assume this position when getting petted simply because they're enjoying it!
Another reason cats arch their back is they're inviting others to "take their address". You see, cats can learn a lot from smelling each other's bums. Glands in their rear end release pheromones that other cats can pick up using the vomeronasal organ in the roof of their mouth.
Cats can figure out another cat's gender and mating status, and even identify littermates just by smelling each other's butts. Next time your cat arches their back in your direction, know they're just trying to reintroduce themselves.
One of the cutest reasons cats arch their back is they're feeling playful. Kittens are particularly adept at the playful back arch and may also jump around and paw at the ground or other cats.
Cats also tend to arch their back when they feel uncomfortable. You may notice your feline take this stance when confronted by a large dog. They may also puff up their fur, hiss, or growl to try to scare away the perceived threat. This doesn't mean your cat is aggressive — it's just your cat's way of saying, "Back off, I will protect myself."
Encouraging the Behavior
There are a couple of different ways to encourage your cat to arch their back. One way to do this is to give your feline catnip or break out a fishing rod-style cat toy. Spread some catnip on the ground and coax your cat into smelling it. While its effects are taking hold, drag the cat toy across the ground in slow, jerky motions. Your cat will be arching their back, jumping around, and swatting in no time!
Back scratches are another tried-and-true means for getting felines to arch their back. Pet your catto from the base of their neck to the tip of their tail in a gentle downward motion. When done correctly, your cat should arch their back as you make your way down their spine.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Never approach a cat with its back arched and hair standing up. This is a defensive stance, and they may scratch or bite you. The best thing to do in this situation is to stand back and call your cat away from whatever is frightening them. Once your cat is calm, you can go back to petting and holding them.
If your cat seems uncomfortable or is unable to straighten out their back, it might be a good idea to talk to your vet. Your cat could be having back spasms or spinal problems that need immediate care.
As you can see, arching the back is a common and usually harmless feline behavior. Cats may do this because they're comfortable, playing, or are scared. We hope this guide demystified this often misunderstood feline response. Curious about other cat behaviors? Check out our other animal behavior guides for more info.