Dr Sarah Ellis on: why do cats arch their backs?

Written by Dr Sarah Ellis
8th Aug 2022
8 mins read
You might already know that cats arch their backs when they’re scared. But don’t be fooled, because cats also arch their backs when they’re playing, greeting loved ones, and stretching. 
As Dr Sarah Ellis, your cat’s bendy back can be a fascinating bit of body language. By learning to recognise what it means, you could better understand your cat and be able to meet more of their welfare needs.
Cats do all kinds of quirky things we don’t always understand. One of the most recognisable, but sometimes little understood, cat behaviours is arching their back.
To coinicde with International Cat Day, we've asked cat lover and head of cat advocacy at International Cat Care,
Sarah Ellis
, to answer "why do cats arch their backs?"
Read on to find out more about cats' beautifully bendy backs and how to understand this surprisingly important piece of feline body language. (You'll also find out how to stroke your cat in ways they like)

Why do cats arch their back?

They feel threatened

One of the most common, and most recognisable, reasons why cats arch their backs is because they feel threatened.
The “Halloween cat pose” is a classic pose of a startled cat. It includes an arched back, fur standing up on end, an erect tail bristled like a brush, legs straightened, standing tall, ears flattened, and pupils huge and round. We're all clear that this is a cat that has had a fright, and feels threatened. Common sources of that threat being a dog, or another cat.
What everyone might not know is that the reason the cat arches its back is to make itself look taller.
Making themselves look larger is a tactic designed to make the animal doing the threatening think twice about taking on the cat. A larger cat may be harder to defeat, it may be enough to convince the source of the threat to turn on its paws and withdraw.
But arched backs aren’t all doom and gloom, only occurring in scary situations. Arched backs in cats occur for lots of heart-warming reasons too!

They’re stretching

Have you seen your cat wake from a snooze and lean back on its hind legs with its tail in the air which is then followed by standing up on its tippy toes with an arched back, eyes often momentarily closed and accompanied by a yawn and perhaps a soft ‘prrrrp’ sound in your direction?
This arched back is all about the post-snooze stretch, reinvigorating the body after a period of down-time. Such a stretch may be followed by a scratch, which really helps to further stretch those muscles.
That means it’s a good idea to have scratching places near your cat’s favourite sleeping spots. Then they can scratch on these and not in locations you may find undesirable, for example, the sofa.
For cats that prefer to scratch in a vertical fashion, cat trees and cat scratching posts are ideal. For cats that prefer to scratch horizontally, horizontal scratching pads can be positioned nearby. Some cats like scratching in both directions so both options need to be on offer.

They’re playing

Another reason why cats arch their backs, is because they’re playing This is often accompanied by a tail position I call the “teapot tail”.
Have you ever seen your cat side-step or jump sideways on to a toy, or another cat it is playing with? This behaviour is most common in kittens and young cats.
They tend to do this with their backs arched, similar to the “Halloween cat” pose, but their hair is not standing on end and their tail is shaped like a teapot handle. Their eyes may be big and round with dilated pupils, but the whiskers are often positioned forward and the ears are not flattened in fear. Instead, there is an air of curiosity.
This is a cat that is still pretending to be bigger than it is, but not because it is scared. It’s because they’re excited and want to make the toy or play buddy move, so they can play with it.
Movement is fun when it comes to play. Seeing two kittens play like this is like watching a couple of overactive crabs on the beach. They will skedaddle one way, and then the other, and can be an absolute delight to watch!

They’re scent rubbing

Another time you may see your cat arching its back is when it rubs against something – for example, the furniture, a feline housemate that it's closely bonded to, or even against your legs.
This behaviour occurs with relaxed body language and usually starts with the cat rubbing its cheeks against the object. It’s followed by the cat moving along the object so that the side of its body makes contact with it, often with the back arching at this point.
It is thought that during the physical contact, chemicals are deposited from glands on the cats bodies onto each other or other objects. Primarily these glands are on the face – behind the whiskers on the cheeks, around the mouth, under the chin and in front of the ears, where the hair is sparse, but also occur in other areas on the body such as the base of the tail.
The chemicals deposited by these glands include those detected by smell. They also include another type of chemical, known as a pheromone. Pheromones are detected through an organ called the “vomeronasal organ”. The opening for this organ sits behind the upper canine teeth in the hard palate of the mouth.
These pheromones have very specific functions in cat-to-cat communication. We humans cannot detect cat pheromones. Apart from sometimes seeing the greasy mark left is an area that has been repeatedly facially rubbed!

Why does a cat arching their back and scent-rubbing act as cat-to-cat communication?

Pheromones released during social rubbing are thought to help maintain and strengthen familial bonds between cats.
When the rubbing behaviour occurs at the same time between two cats, it is known as body rubbing or flank rubbing. The behaviour may even end with the cats crossing their tails over the backs of each other or inter-twining them.
These rubbing behaviours create an inter-mingling of the cats’ signature scents. This creates a ‘family’ signature scent which is thought to help maintain the cats' bonding to one another.
Meanwhile, the rubbing that occurs on physical objects such as furniture most likely serves a slightly different function of increasing familiarity and security within the physical environment. It helps home to “smell” like home!

Do cats scent rub on humans?

Whether cats deposit pheromones on our legs and hands when they rub against us is unknown. However, the feel of the soft fur rubbing against us is enough to maintain our affections towards our cats!

Why do cats arch their back when we stroke them?

When a cat invites us to interact, often through rubbing their face against us, it’s almost instinctual for many of us to begin stroking the cat. Often we start stroking on the head and then glide our hand down their back to the base of the tail.
Some cats react to this by arching their backs, creating more pressure between themselves and our hands. This is a sign that the cat enjoys such interaction.
Sometimes a very enthusiastic cat can be seen almost rearing up on its hind legs so that its head meets the approaching hand, and then follows with its back in an arch-like fashion.
However, not all cats respond in this manner to having their backs touched. In fact, for many cats, it's a “no touch!” area. Or at least, an area that the cat may only tolerate being touched once or twice during a single interaction.
Several studies have investigated where best cats like to be touched and the consensus is “face first and final”!

Where is a good place to stroke a cat?

For cats that enjoy social interactions in the form of stroking and scratching, the face is a clear winner.
Cats enjoy being stroked or massaged on the slightly bald areas in front of their ear (those are the temporal facial gland areas), scratches on the cheeks and under the chin and for some, even soft strokes on to the top of the head are appreciated.
However, when we move away from the head, research tells us many cats react negatively with the base of the tail and the belly being the areas cats are least keen on having touched.
The cat is actually a prey animal as well as a predator. And while the cat doesn’t have many predators in the UK, (with the exception of some dogs,) in some parts of the world cats are predated on by coyotes and other large carnivores.
Thus, cats are naturally more protective over areas particularly vulnerable to injury such as the belly. Likewise, the base of the tail is often the first area touched when being chased (by claw or tooth,) and thus touch in this area isn’t likely to conjure up positive feelings for the cat. Particularly those that have recently felt threatened or are naturally timid!

How to keep back-arching and stroking positive

One of the ways we can ensure we keep interactions in that lovely “face rubbing, back arching” vibe is to actually stop the interaction.
This almost acts as a question to the cat, “would you like me to stroke you again?” If the cat actively moves towards you and rubs against you, you know the cat is keen for more and can begin stroking again. Regularly stopping to check in with the cat and let it take the lead helps keep interactions consensual and prevents cats getting over-aroused.
An over-aroused cat sometimes feels the only way they can get people to stop stroking them is by a paw swipe, which is less than ideal and often taken by surprise and shock. This is because people often find the subtler signs of “I’m no longer enjoying this” hard to read in cats.

How to tell if your cat wants you to stop stroking them

Look out for the body freezing, head turning, skin rippling or twitching and tail flicking. These are all signs that the cat has had enough.
As a general rule, cats prefer interactions that they initiate and are generally short and fleeting. If we follow their lead, we will end up with more from them!

Final thoughts: Is it worth knowing why do cats arch their back?

If I was asked what’s the most fascinating part of the cat’s body, the back would not be the part that would come to the forefront of my mind. But as I sit here at the computer, stretching and arching my own back after an hour’s writing, I realise the cat’s arched back is pretty multi-functional!
So there are a few reasons why cats arch their backs. And it’s certainly more than just out of fright! When it comes to feline communication, your cat’s back is key to understanding a little bit more about our much-loved companion.

International Cat Day

The 8th of August is International Cat Day!
To celebrate, we dedicated all our content to cats this week. As well as writing this post, Dr Sarah Ellis joined us for another episode of The Pet Perspective, all about indoor cats.
We also ran a competition for a £100 voucher so you could spoil your cat. (Please note, the competition is now closed - Congrats to our winners!)
Meanwhile, Dr Sarah Ellis and her colleagues at International Cat Care have arranged lots of fun and educational events to celebrate all things cat, and to help you learn more about caring for your feline friends. You can find out more about what's on their website and follow along with the fun with the hashtag #BeCatCurious.

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