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Why Do Cats Arch Their Back

↯ Key takeaway points

  • Cats arch their backs for various reasons, including affection seeking, play behavior, defensiveness and stress, dominance behavior, spraying behavior, and to cope with pain and discomfort.
  • When a cat arches its back as an affectionate gesture, it may be seeking attention and enjoying petting.
  • Defensive arching occurs when a cat feels threatened, and it may be accompanied by other defensive behaviors.
  • Cats may also arch their backs during play to signal friendliness or when startled.
  • Excessive back arching can be a sign of pain or discomfort, especially in older cats with conditions like osteoarthritis.
Written by Jay
BsC (Hons) Animal Behaviour & Welfare graduate with a passion for advocating for misunderstood animals.
Zoo and wildlife doctor in veterinary medicine passionate about animal welfare and preventive medicine.
Published on
Monday 1 January 2024
Last updated on
Monday 30 October 2023
Why Do Cats Arch Their Back
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Our feline friends are known for their many unusual and endearing behaviors. One of the most famous is the “Halloween” pose of a playing or startled cat. But why do cats arch their back? Are there times when it’s indicative of a health or behavioral issue? As with any behavior, an excess can suggest that something is wrong.

While cat back arching can be an affectionate gesture or a play signal, it can be a sign of health or emotional issues in other contexts. So when is it a cause for concern? Ready to find out more about this behavior? Read on with us today.

Why Do Cats Arch Their Back?

There are several reasons why a cat might arch their back. These include defensive signaling, play with other cats and toys, as a dominant signal, and coping with pain and discomfort. It’s important to observe the behavior in context, and you know your feline friend best. Be sure to ask your vet for advice if you think your cat feels unwell. Here, we will begin with the positive associations of back arching in cats, ending with the negative associations.

Affection Seeking

If you’ve ever scratched your cat at the base of its tail, you know they seem to enjoy it. This is because cats have many nerve endings in this area and, in short intervals, scratching this spot can be highly pleasurable for them. You may find that your cat leans into your touch and asks for more attention by arching their back toward you. These are positive signs that your cat is seeking out your affection. However, be vigilant in reading your feline friend’s body language. Many cats withdraw consent to receiving affection and have their withdrawal missed, leading to apparently sudden and “unexplained” scratching and biting.

Play Behavior

In some instances, back arching can be used as part of a “friendly” set of signals to other cats and humans. When playing, a cat might arch their tail over their back and move it rapidly. They will also point their ears forward and the whiskers may sit forwards as well. Be wary of cats who flick their tails rapidly when playing – this is a signal that they are very aroused, and if overstimulated by interaction from you, they may scratch or bite due to sensory overload. Some cats, especially young kittens, will arch their backs and fluff their tails whilst running as a play signal – some pet parents dub this the “Halloween” pose. Some cats will also adopt a similar pose when startled by something.

Defensiveness and Stress

Sometimes, a cat arching their back is a defensive signal. When your cat is feeling very threatened, they will adopt a distinct set of postures and signals to let you know. These include crouching directly on top of all four paws with the body lowered towards the ground, rapid breathing, and a curled tail that is held close to the body. The pupils are fully dilated and the ears are flattened. Taking this a step further, a cat who is extremely threatened will crouch directly on top of all four paws with their back arched and fur raised. This posture, in theory, makes the cat appear bigger than whatever is frightening them.

Dominance Behavior

It may come as a surprise to know that cats have no linear hierarchy. This means that our pet cats have no clear social structure with ranks where each animal sits. This is further supported by the fact that cats lack overt submissive (conflict-defusing) signals, much unlike dogs. However, conflicts over resources are common in groups of cats. Cats will also revert to competitive territorial behavior when under stress.

Even with a nonlinear hierarchy, you may notice one cat is more dominant than others in your own household. In most cases, the dominant cat in the group does not need to assert their dominance overtly. Instead, they will approach a subordinate cat, stiffen their limbs, hold the ears upright, and elevate the base of the tail. Most often, a subordinate cat will simply give way to the dominant cat to avoid fighting. However, if there is a dispute between two cats, the dominant individual might arch their back to appear bigger.

Spraying Behavior

One of the key differences between normal urination and spray marking is arching the back. When spraying, your cat will back up against a surface, raise the tail, arch or lift their back, and spray urine. You’ll also find that they shake their tail as they do this. This is different from normal urination, where your cat will squat close to the ground before releasing urine. Spray marking is a normal behavior for any cat. However, in excess, it can be a sign that your cat is stressed. Cats do not cope well with change, which is a key reason for excessive spraying. Spaying and neutering cats can reduce the frequency of spraying considerably. Also, note that excessive spraying can be the result of a medical issue. If in doubt, check in with your vet.

Pain and Discomfort

If your cat arches their back and seems unwell, trust your instincts. A cat who is struggling with abdominal or back pain may stand or walk with their back arched or walk with a stilted gait. Along with this, you may notice other changes in posture and movement – these include limping, head tilting, and a hunched posture. Behaviorally, your cat might hide away from others, seem unusually quiet, lick themselves incessantly, and lose their appetite. If your cat shows overt signs of pain, you must get them to your local vet right away. Cats are adept at masking their pain, so outward signs of it are a cause for immediate concern.

Is Cat Arching Back Bad?

To determine if this body language is a reason for concern, it’s important to first put it into context. Is your cat engaging in normal play behavior? Are they frightened or stressed? Do they appear to be in pain? Some causes of back arching are entirely normal, while others are a sign that your cat feels unwell or frightened. Be sure to monitor your cat closely when attempting to decipher the cause of their behaviors.

When Should I Be Concerned About Cat Arching Back?

A cat arching their back excessively may be struggling with pain and discomfort. Since our cats are living longer, they are more often experiencing the debilitation that comes along with aging. This includes osteoarthritis, a condition that 90% of cats over the age of 12 now have. However, it is your cat’s instinct to hide their pain. As such, it can be difficult to diagnose the cause of their discomfort.

A cat in pain may vocalize more than normal. You may also hear them purring when you would not normally expect them to. They might growl or hiss when approached by other family members. You might notice that your cat seems restless and withdrawn. They might pace because they cannot find a comfortable area to rest in. You may also find that they have less energy and do not want to play, as well as are reluctant to move up and down stairs. They might avoid jumping onto their cat tree or windowsill. A cat might stand with their front legs held under their chest to take the weight off of its painful limbs. You may notice that they avoid scratching their posts or stretching their back.

If your cat frequently appears stressed or frightened, consider the possibility of anxiety. An anxious cat may tremble, pace, hide, vocalize excessively, and become destructive. Many cats do not adjust well to change, so be sure to consider if anything has changed around your home. In severe cases of cat anxiety, a vet may prescribe medication to help manage their symptoms.

Why Do Cats Arch Their Back: FAQs

Still wondering why cats arch their backs? Feel free to check out our Frequently Asked Questions for more details. If in doubt about your cat’s health, always ask your vet for advice.

Why is my cat walking with an arched back?

If your cat often walks with their back arched or hunched over, it could be a sign of pain and discomfort. You know your cat best, so be sure to get them to your local vet right away if you spot any changes in their behavior. Be sure to keep a record of your cat’s symptoms so that your vet is best prepared to help your feline friend.

Why do cats arch their back when I pet them?

If your cat enjoys you petting them, they’ll angle their body towards you for more affection. So, if you pet your cat along their lower back, they may raise it and move it toward you for more petting in that same spot. An arched back, when accompanied by something like petting, tends to be associated with something pleasurable. The base of the tail has many nerve endings in it, so most cats enjoy being pet or scratched there and will ask you to keep going.

Why do cats rub against you?

When a cat rubs against you, especially during petting, it’s an overt sign of affection. When your cat rubs their cheek against you, they transfer their scent onto you. As well as this, an affectionate cat will head-butt and nuzzle you to ensure that they have your full attention.

Why does my old cat have a hunched back?

A senior cat who walks or stands with a hunched back may be uncomfortable. It’s important to know that around 90% of cats over the age of 12 develop osteoarthritis. If your cat has osteoarthritis, their joints will become stiff and painful. They may stand with an arched back to relieve pressure on their joints or to ease the discomfort in their spine. If this sounds like your senior cat, be sure to get them to your vet as soon as possible. A vet can prescribe appropriate painkillers and other management strategies for your cat’s pain.

In a play or affectionate context, cat back arching is normal behavior. However, when it comes with signs of anxiety or pain, it’s a cause for immediate concern.

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