Cats communicate in many ways including through body language, and when cats arch their backs it instantly attracts attention. While an arched back is commonly associated with fear and aggression, we’ll explore other reasons that cats arch their backs from stretching, excitement, playfulness, establishing territorial boundaries or in response to pain or injury.
1. Cats arch their backs to stretch their spine
One common reason why your cat arches its back is when it is stretching after a nap. Cats stretch to improve circulation and blood flow to their bodies after having laid still for a while. In the same way that people do, stretching can help prevent stiffness, loosen up tight muscles and improve flexibility and range of motion.
Stretching is instinctive for cats. It allows them to keep their bodies in optimal physical condition. Arching their back is how your cat stretches out and prepares for their next activity, whether that is running, jumping, playing or hunting. You may also see your cat yawning and bow-type stretching. This is when your cat lowers its head and shoulders while its rear end remains up in the air. If you are familiar with yoga, this cat stretch looks like the downward dog pose.
2. Cats raise their backs when happy and excited
An arched back communicates positive emotions, such as happiness, excitement and anticipation. If your cat arches its back when you enter the room it means your cat is happy or excited to see you. It shows the affection and trust a cat has for its owner. A happy cat will greet you with a slightly raised back, with an upward curve from the neck to the base of the tail. The cat will appear relaxed and calm, holding its tail upright, with a slight curve at the tip, which may resemble a question mark.
Cats also arch their backs in anticipation of something they enjoy, like being fed. This behaviour may be accompanied by purring, head butting, rubbing against your legs and following you around. Happy cats are usually very vocal, they chirp, trill and meow to express their joy.
In our house, Charlie arches his back and meows in anticipation of meal times. When I prepare his food, he balances on his hind legs and jumps up and down holding the kitchen door handle for support. He makes me smile every time.
3. Scared cats arch their backs in fear
A scared cat will arch its back when it senses danger is nearby. A frightened cat’s hair will stand on end and is called piloerection. This is essentially feline goosebumps which raise the fur along the spine. Other signs that your cat is frightened include dilated eyes, flattened ears, and a tense rigid body. With its back arched, a scared cat is ready to ‘fight or flee’. A fearful cat should be given space to calm down. Approach with caution, as cats can become aggressive when they feel threatened.
4. Angry cats arch their backs in a defensive posture
An angry cat looks a lot like a frightened cat. This is because a cat’s instinctive response to both fear and anger is to adopt a defensive position. Angry or threatened cats want to appear larger and more intimidating to potential threats.
To do this, they arch their backs severely and raise their fur so it seems to stand on end. Their tails may also be ridged and puffed out. Their ears can be back or forward but will lie flat against the cat’s skull. The cat may also appear to be standing on its tiptoes. One of the subtle differences between an angry and frightened cat is that an angry cat is likely to have constricted pupils, rather than dilated ones.
Angry cats may hiss and spit, growl, or meow in readiness for confrontation. Their anger can be directed at you, another person, another pet, or something else. As with a frightened cat, leaving an angry cat alone is always best. Try to break the tension and then give your cat some space and time to cool off and calm down. Trying to pick up and hold your cat when it is angry will likely lead to scratches, bites and tears.
5. An arched back is a friendly invitation to interact
Whilst an arched back is more commonly associated with fear or aggression in cats, it can also be a social invitation to interact. Have you ever wondered why cats arch their back when you pet them? The cat that approaches its human with an arched back is happy, relaxed and wants your attention. They trust you and are comfortable in your presence. They want that social connection and for you to keep petting and stroking them…. Until they don’t.
Remember, every cat is unique and has different tolerance levels when it comes to being petted. In some cases, an arched back can be a warning sign that the cat has had enough attention and you need to back off.
6. Cats arch their backs to establish territorial boundaries
Another reason your cat may arch its back is to establish territorial or personal boundaries. A cat will arch its back as a warning to humans or other cats to keep their distance and stay away. Cats are naturally territorial animals and will defend their personal space.
If you have a neighbourhood cat who tries to enter your garden, your cat may feel like their home territory is being invaded or threatened. By arching its back, making its fur stand on end and taking a fierce defensive position, the warning is clear. Your cat is saying: ‘Get out! This is my home and I am prepared to defend it if necessary.’
7. Kittens who arch their backs are ready to play
Have you ever seen cats arch their back and walk sideways – it’s the funniest thing to watch. Cats will arch their backs and make these funny little sidesteps called crab-walking to let other cats know they want to play. This active, social behaviour is most common in kittens and can be directed at you, another kitten or cat, or even an object such as a toy. For kittens, an arched back and that cute sidestepping behaviour is a sign of happiness and excitement as they chase, leap, pounce and hunt their toys or play with each other.
8. An arched back can be a sign of pain or injury
Normally an arched back is nothing to be concerned about. However, a cat that suffers from spinal or abdominal pain and discomfort may have an arched back. This could result from musculoskeletal issues such as arthritis, urinary tract problems, gastrointestinal issues or internal medical conditions such as kidney disease or pancreatitis. A cat who has been injured in a cat fight, involved in an accident, or fallen from a height may also arch their back as a protective response if they are in pain.
When a cat arches its back, it communicates a range of emotions and intentions. Commonly recognised as a sign of fear or aggression, an arched back can also be a greeting of happiness, a sign of excitement or a desire to play. There is nothing more entertaining than watching a kitten arch its back and walk sideways as they chase a toy or eagerly pounce on a moving shadow. Cats also arch their backs after waking from a long nap in the sun, to establish territorial or personal boundaries or when they are in pain.
Because there can be so many reasons why a cat arches its back, you may need to pay attention to any other visual cues to figure out what your cat trying to tell you. Decoding the hidden messages behind a cat’s arched back can help you interpret their emotions and needs and build a stronger bond.