When you think of iconic images of felines, a cat’s arched back comes near the top of the list. Especially during Halloween time, silhouettes of a cat’s arched back, complete with hair standing on end, are rife and help enhance the spine-chilling atmosphere of the holiday. But what’s really going on when you see a cat’s arched back? Let’s dig into the science and theory behind this classic pose.
There are a few common scenarios where you might come across a cat’s arched back. First up, it can be part of the stretching process that takes place after waking up from a slumber session. In this case, the cat’s vertebrae — which usually total around 50, including the tail — allows her to strike such a distinctive arched pose. Stretching also taps into a cat’s hunting instincts: Keeping the muscles and joints supple can be key to securing that all-important meal when living out in the wild.
“If a cat wakes up from a nap, he may do a good stretch by arching his back briefly to unlink muscles,” says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified cat behavior consultant. “There will be no piloerection of fur, and everything else about the cat’s demeanor will be relaxed.” (Piloerection is the involuntary bristling of hairs that’s controlled by the nervous system.)
Some cats are also fond of striking an arched back pose during playtime — and it’s a move often followed with a bunch of frantic hopping and skipping around. This is especially prevalent during the kitten stage of development. If you look closely, you’ll see that the cat’s hairs are not usually puffed up, which signifies playful behavior.
Beyond stretching and playing, the main likelihood of seeing a cat’s arched back is when the feline feels the need to become defensive. “Arching is a posture displayed when a cat is fearful and is worried about a threat,” Pam explains. “The posture is intended to make the cat look bigger.”
The body language going on when a cat arches his back builds on the idea of the pose being part of a feline’s defensive repertoire. “When a cat arches his back, the cat is trying to be bigger and more imposing,” says Pam, whose own resident feline is a 10-year-old rescue named Pearl. “In addition to the arch, there is also piloerection of hair.”
The goal of a cat’s arched back is a straightforward one, inspired by a feline’s innate self-preservation instincts. “It’s all intended to convince an opponent to think twice about advancing,” Pam explains. “Cats don’t like confrontation, so they use body language to try to prevent fights.” In one sense, a cat’s arched back symbolizes a call for peace.
If you find yourself in the vicinity of a cat arching his back, whether in the midst of Halloween or elsewhere during the year, there’s a pretty simple best code of practice to follow: Move away.
“This is a distance-increasing behavior, so the cat is strongly requesting you to not pursue,” Pam says. “The wisest move is to leave the cat alone.”
Phillip Mlynar spends his days writing about cats, hip-hop and craft beer, often while being pestered by his rescue, a mackerel tabby named Mimosa. When he’s not musing on the feline form for Catster, you can find his music articles at Pitchfork, Vice, Bandcamp and Red Bull Music Academy, and his beer insights over at CraftBeer, VinePair and October. He’s won various awards at the Cat Writer’s Association Communication Contests, some of which are proudly on display at his local dive bar in New York City. Twitter: twitter.com/phillip_mlynar