Cat body language can be so subtle! Why your cat is arching their back will depend on what’s happening around them and what other body language they display.
Cats arch their backs due to fear, aggression, or playfulness, to show affection, to stretch, to lean into your hand when you pet them, and sometimes when they’re in pain or to spray urine.
It’s usually pretty easy to tell the difference between these causes, but it can be confusing for first-time cat guardians! Let’s dive into each below so you can figure out why your cat is arching their back.
Table of Contents:
1. An Arched Back Often Indicates Fear
When cats are afraid, they try to make themselves appear larger. They may do so by arching their back with their fur standing on end, like the silhouettes of cats you see around Halloween.
Funnily enough, my black cat Bella is the one in my house most likely to arch her back when she’s afraid. I call it her “black cat walk,” and it typically happens if there’s a loud noise outside or a stranger comes into the house.
To tell if your cat is afraid, look at their other body language and their environment. If there are large noises, strangers, or other stressors around, they’re likely showing a fear response. The same goes for if they run away or hide after arching their back, hiss, or have dilated pupils.
2. Or, it Can Indicate Playfulness
On the other hand, your cat may arch their back out of playfulness. In this case, they may run back a few steps before coming forward again to pounce playfully or do a little sideways run with their back arched.
They’re not likely to run fully away or hide since they’ll usually be engaging with something fun in their environment.
There won’t be any major stressors in the area, but maybe they’re playing with a toy, you, or another pet who they know and feel comfortable around.
They may seem to “attack” you, especially your hands or ankles, but it’s all meant as play. Most cats know how to be fairly gentle, but some may be too rough! In this case, you can calmly stop playing and walk away, so that they know playtime ends when they do this.
If you have a kitten, keep in mind that playing with other kittens is how they learn. Adopting a single kitten is a mistake many people make, and then end up with a cat who bites harder than they should or otherwise plays too roughly due to lack of socialization.
Some rescues won’t even adopt out single kittens anymore due to the problems it causes! Most people refer to this as single kitten syndrome–though it’s a behavioral problem, not a medical one.
See our Kitten Growth Chart!
3. They May be Giving a Warning
An arched back can also mean “back off!” This is often accompanied by fear but gears more toward aggression.
The cat may hiss, growl, or takes steps closer to the threat. They may even charge forward and bite or scratch in a non-playful manner.
It’s important to listen to our cats and to respect their boundaries. Never punish your cat for arching their back or hissing as a warning–this is how you get cats who skip warning signs altogether and skip straight to biting or scratching.
Instead, listen to them. Cats deserve to have boundaries and autonomy, and no means no! Give them space and time to calm down.
If they’re doing this toward a child, guest, or another pet, take them out of the area and put up a boundary between them and the cat to keep everyone safe. This may be something like a baby gate or closed door.
Be sure to teach dogs, children, and even adults how to interact appropriately with your cat and how to read cat body language. This helps your cat to feel safe in their home and drastically lowers the risk of injury on both sides.
If your cat is prone to unprovoked anger, please see your veterinarian. This often indicates pain or illness.
It can also mean you aren’t reading their body language correctly, in which case hiring a cat behaviorist can be helpful!
4. Cats Arch their Backs When Rubbing Against People
If your cat arches their back and rubs against you, another pet, or an object, they may be saying hello, scent marking, or showing affection.
Many cats will rub against their human’s legs when they get home for work, for instance, as a way of greeting them.
Scent marking is an important way for cats to engage with their environment and the creatures they love–whether it be you, another cat, or a dog. They aren’t leaving behind scents that humans can smell, but cats have much stronger noses than us!
Cats have scent markers on their cheeks, foreheads, and tails. If they’re rubbing these body parts against something, they’re marking it as “theirs.” This isn’t a dominance behavior or anything you need to worry about–it’s natural and helps them feel safe and familiar in their environment and relationships.
Lastly, your cat may simply be showing affection–or asking for it! Many cats will rub against you when they want to be petted or fed.
5. They Might be Stretching
Cats also arch their backs to stretch their muscles. Stretching is important for cats to stay physically healthy.
Stretching the back may be accompanied by waking up from a nap, yawning, or stretching other body parts like the legs.
Cats are very flexible and their spines are pretty bendy! It may look strange when they stretch, but it’s completely normal.
They may arch their backs to stretch while standing up or even while laying down.
6. They’re Enjoying Being Petted
Some cats will arch their backs to lean into your hand when you pet them. This means they’re enjoying themselves and want more! Sometimes, it can mean they want you to increase the pressure of the pets.
Remember that cats can quickly change their mind, as they get overstimulated easily–especially by repetitive, long strokes down their backs.
It’s best to pause occasionally and ask for consent to keep petting–if your cat wants you to continue, they’ll rub against you to show where they want to be petted. You can also pay attention to their body language, as their subtle cues can often show you whether or not they want you to keep going.
7. They’re Grooming Themselves
If your cat is grooming themselves, they may arch their back to get to a hard-to-reach spot. You’ll see them licking their body, and potentially craning their neck or otherwise stretching toward a certain body part.
They’ll usually do this while laying down, so it’s a bit different to the others on our list where your cat is more likely to be standing.
8. Your Cat May be in Pain
This is the least likely of all of the options–usually, arching their backs is a very normal feline behavior.
However, if your cat seems hunched over or keeps their back arched for extended periods, you should talk to your veterinarian. It’s likely they’re sick or in pain and need veterinary attention.
Anytime your kitty shows changes in behavior or posture, it’s time to schedule a vet visit. These are often the first signs of illness.
You may also notice out-of-character aggression, such as biting or scratching when you pet them. They may limp, show changes in appetite, or move around less than normal.
9. They’re Spraying
Lastly, your cat may arch their back as they spray urine. When cats spray, they’ll usually have their rear end facing a surface. They will back up near it with their tail upright, their back arched a bit, and their tail trembling.
It’s very easy to know if your cat is spraying because you’ll be able to both see and smell the urine. If you have any question, it’s likely not what they’re doing!