Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs When You Pet Them?


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Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs When You Pet Them

Have you noticed your cat pushing their fluffy behind in your face? Or is it only when you give your kitty a full-body petting session, that you notice them arching their back towards you?

Some cat parents might be more familiar with the arched back of an angry cat, so it could be quite surprising seeing your innocent feline companion stretching for more of that glorious back-scratching.

Why do cats arch their backs when you pet them? Cats usually adopt this position during petting, as a sign of pleasure. By arching their back, they give you easier access to their sweet spot, oftentimes accompanied by a purr and slow blinking. But be careful because overstimulation of the area may cause distress instead.

If you’d like to find out more about your cat’s unusual habit of arching their back when you pet them, then we’ve got you covered!

Let’s get to it!

Understanding Your Cat’s Body Language

While some scientists struggle to explore and explain the mysterious world of cats, most cat parents will claim that they know their feline companions better than anyone. John Bradshaw, the director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in England, supports this idea by saying that “many cats and their owners gradually develop an individual “language” that they both understand but that is not shared by other cats or owners.”

But even the most loving cat parent can’t know or understand everything about their feline companions. If you’re a newbie, you might have some trouble relating, but don’t worry it’s easier than you may think. You see cats are masters of body language and communication and they do everything they can to let us know how they feel and what they want.

Before we explain the possible reasons why cats arch their backs when you pet them, it’s important to go through some key elements of their communication skills. By understanding the full picture of what our cat is saying to use we can better understand why they arch their back when we pet them!

1. The Ears

Cats are known for being very sensitive and intuitive creatures. Such qualities are essential for an animal to survive in the wild, and their ears play a major role in their survival. Cats rely heavily on their ears, which can hear more frequencies than humans and even some dogs.

While they sleep or lay down relaxed, their ears are at their usual angle, slightly to the side. When there’s some strange or interesting noise, you can observe that the first thing they’ll move is their ears. If they’re curious they’ll usually perk up their ears, or they’ll twitch them to establish where that noise is coming from, a motion shared by dogs and surprisingly humans alike.

If you’re playing with your cat and you notice their ears being flat against the back of their head, it’s usually a sign of frustration. It can be a clear indicator that they want you to stop whatever you’re doing. Flat ears during a fight on the other hand is a sign of aggression.

2. The Eyes

Because cats are nocturnal animals, most of us know that their eyes are sensitive to low light, but that’s not all. By paying close attention to pupil dilation, and how open or closed their eyes are you’ll be able to understand if your cat is content or agitated.

A cat that’s frightened or surprised will stare at the source of danger with eyes wide open. Some cats don’t like it when we stare into their eyes for too long. This alone shows us that cats are responsive to eye contact with humans and that most of them wouldn’t enjoy being glared at.

According to some reports, “the eyes are important in signaling emotions, with the act of narrowing the eyes appearing to be associated with positive emotional communication in a range of species.” So, the relaxed and satisfied kitty, you have sitting on your lap should also show you how much she’s enjoying herself with her eyes being closed or half-closed. You might even be used to your cat blowing you kisses, by slow blinking at you. Don’t forget to blink slowly back cause otherwise, you’re just rude!

3. The Body

Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs When You Pet Them

While a cat’s body language might be subtle at times, I think we all know a relaxed kitty when we see one. Their body is like liquid, spreading over our lap, bed, or office chair. Their feet might even shoot up in the air as they flop down before you, inviting you to rub their belly.

An arched back and a fluffy tail are good indicators of a scared or angry cat. A stiff cat with its tail between its hind legs is also a sign of fear. So, as you can see a cat’s tail plays also a great role in how they express their emotions. A twitching tail can be a clear sign of agitation while a straight-up tail with a slight wave is an excited hello.

The best way to be certain of what each sign means is by being observant and respectful of your kitty’s boundaries. With patience and love, you can soon begin to understand the feline body language.

4. The Paws

This is another small part of a cat’s body that can give us a clue about a kitty’s emotional state. Kneading is one of the cutest ways a cat expresses content. This simple motion of stroking you one paw at a time, like making dough is just another way of saying “I love you.”

By kneading and touching you with their paws cats release their scent on you, claiming you or as their own. This is just another way a cat can mark you, thanks to the sweat from the soft pads at the bottom of their paws and the scent glands positioned there. A scratch on the other hand could be an indicator of rough play or most likely a sign of anger. Either way, it’s better not to condone aggressive and harmful behaviors.

5. Vocalization

Lastly, while cats are very good communicators when it comes to their bodies, their meowing can also be a helpful addition. Our feline companions have a number of sounds to draw our attention, whether they’re distressed or they’re happy to see us.

So Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs When You Pet Them?

While it might seem strange to witness at first, but a cat arching their back is completely normal. It might be as simple as stretching. According to Andrew Cuff, a postdoctoral researcher of anatomy at the Royal Veterinary College in London, “cats stretch to get their muscles moving again after periods of inactivity, whether they’ve been sitting still or sleeping,” and he adds that, “this helps wake you up and make you more alert.”

It might also be a clear sign of a cat that feels threatened. An arched back with a fluffy tail and fur standing up is something very common among stray cats that are about to fight. An arched back during petting, on the other hand, usually has a different meaning. In fact, this peculiar behavior can have multiple meanings and as cat parents, we should be able to recognize the signs our fur babies are sending us.

Is Your Cat In Heat?

Before you look for other reasons behind your cat’s back arching behavior, you should make sure your cat isn’t in heat. According to Veterinary Centers of America, the most notable signs of estrus, meaning a cat in heat, are behavioral. To be precise, cats become very affectionate, and can even become downright demanding.

If your female kitty isn’t neutered then you might find her searching for more attention, like rubbing excessively against you or other objects around the house. Not only could they become very vocal, but when petted they’ll arch their back, especially when they’re stroked along their spine. So, before you look for more answers to the question, why do cats raise their backs when you scratch them, make sure they’re spayed!

Spaying and neutering a housecat is important for their own health. According to the Humane Society of the United States, neutered cats have a longer life span and the risk of certain types of cancers is reduced. They also support studies suggesting that “intact female cats and dogs have a greater chance of developing pyometra (a potentially fatal uterine infection) and other cancers of the reproductive system. For male cats, there’s a significantly smaller risk of getting testicular cancer and results in lower rates of prostate cancer.”

Having a cat comes with a number of responsibilities and one of them is spaying/neutering. Not only could this benefit them long term, but it should also help reduce the number of stray kittens that are born on the streets. You can find a list of low cost spay/neuter clinics across the globe thanks to PetSmart by clicking here.

Sign Of Pleasure And Contentment

My cats are quite happy to get as many strokes as possible from me and my oldest arches his back constantly to point out the obvious spot I might be missing. Most cat parents will agree that their cats enjoy their back being scratched, but no matter how sure we are, keeping an eye on how our kitties react to this activity is crucial.

Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs When You Pet Them

Notice your cat’s body language while they stretch and arch their back. Are their whiskers and ears in a neutral position? Do they keep their eyes closed or half-closed, signifying how pleasurable this is? Keep an eye on their tail, are they whipping it in annoyance? If their body is relaxed, you could also take it as a positive sign.

Some cats might also stretch out while you scratch their back to get that extra pleasure. After all stretching relaxes their muscles and gives them a sense of well-being. It’s basically yoga for cats!

Displaying Their Bum

There are cats that can become persistent when it comes to attention and petting. Whenever I take a moment to sit down, one of my cats jumps up on my lap and takes a moment to reintroduce me to his bum. The minute I start scratching he’ll arch his back and wiggle his behinds at me. In a sense, this is his way of telling me I’m the chosen one!

Cats of course display their rear to other cats as well. This is a greeting technique where two or more cats exchange their scent, released from their anal glands. Of course, we humans, lack the nasal talent to detect such a thing, but other cats will. Two bonded cats living in the same house will smell each other’s bums to make sure they’re friends and get the necessary information about each other. Oftentimes it’s followed by mutual grooming or play.

Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs When You Pet Them

A part of this behavior might be traced back to their kittenhood. Professor Bjarne O. Braastad of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences agrees by suggesting that, “Animals that live with humans tend to use their baby behavior towards humans because they find that it works.” Kittens usually run to their mother with their tail straight up accompanied by excessive mewing, a signal, or a greeting.

Because arching their back is also associated with their owner scratching them and ultimately with pleasure, some cats will arch their back when they see you, ready to get petted. It oftentimes happens when you come back home, or even when they’re hungry and they’re asking for food.

Because it’s a tough spot to reach for a cat, they have an itch they need you to take care of. There might also be some tangled hair at the back, especially with longhaired breeds.

Sign Of Anxiety And Fear

An arched back, especially when it’s accompanied by scratching is usually associated with something pleasurable. It seems though that there are instances where this activity could become displeasing, especially when a cat is being forcefully petted.

If your cat is experiencing fear or anxiety, while being stroked, it could result in hissing, spitting, or high pitched cries. Their body will also show signs of what they’re feeling. According to Carlo Siracusa, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, “on a calm cat, a straight-up tail with a hooked tip is a friendly greeting, while an aggressive cat may just have its tail straight up. A fearful “Halloween” cat will have an arched back and “its tail up and puffed.”

As kittens, they might also use this technique during play, like this cute ball of fluff!

In order to calm your kitty, it’s important to find out what’s causing this reaction. You might’ve brought another cat into your house, or perhaps you brought a smell with you that has triggered this reaction. Loud unfamiliar noises, people, and smells could make your cat feel threatened.

If you just brought your kitty into your home, you might even find it displaying this behavior towards you. If this is the case, then try not to pressure your new companion. Some cats need time to let down their guard. You should try using treats to build trust between you, as well as with sweet words and a calm atmosphere.

Secure vs Insecure Attachment

Cats are not usually associated with the idea of attachment, but they’re perfectly capable of creating bonds. According to this research made at Oregon State University, cats can form both secure or insecure bonds with their owners, just like human babies.

Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs When You Pet Them

If you come back home after work notice how your cat reacts to you. Does it greet you at the door and then return back to its unfinished business? In this case, your feline companion isn’t cold or aloof, but instead, they’re confident in your relationship. Confident kitties will usually ask to be petted when they need it and an arched back is a typical response.

A cat that becomes agitated and follows their owner around, could demand excessive amounts of petting to feel more secure or will show low tolerance to stroking instead. An insecure kitty might have a hard time trusting their owner and will arch their back in confusion, unsure if they want to be petted further or not.

Sign Of Pain And Discomfort

While there are plenty of cats that love and demand back scratches, there are those kitties that show their bum as a sign of pain. If your kitty trusts you, they’ll want to communicate to you what they like and dislike, so an arched back could be their effort to tell you to stop.

To understand what your kitty feels when you scratch their back you should notice other subtle hints, they might be giving you. Shifting constantly, moving, or turning their head away from you, could be a sign of discomfort. A swishing and thumping tail is usually a sign of distress as well as exaggerated blinking.

Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs When You Pet Them

If your petting is followed by scratching or patting your hand and in some cases running away from you, don’t be surprised. According to  Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine, cats can show aggressive behavior when in pain.

You might feel reassured by your cat’s purring, as most of us would, and while purring is usually a sign of a happy cat, it’s not always a clear indicator. Because purring promotes healing it could also be a sign of pain, so it’s important to have more than one or two indicators of what could your kitty be feeling.

Skin Sensitivity – Carrying A Condition

If your kitty loves the occasional backstroke, but lately they’ve been less happy about it, then maybe this is more than just a change of heart. You should pay attention to where exactly the frustration begins. If they get frustrated as soon as you touch their sweet spot, then perhaps the skin there could be sensitive for various reasons.

Because cats find it difficult to reach that spot to clean there might be a wound, pimples, or just irritated skin from a certain allergy or germs that need to be taken care of. There are a few skin conditions you might want to look into. The most common is Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which is a hereditary skin condition that appears when a cat is young. In this case, the skin’s structure is weak and prone to damage.

Fleas and ringworms might be another explanation for the change in your cat’s approach. Be careful when you check that area and look for signs of redness or excessive dandruff. You might also notice bold spots created by the kitty itself, which is why it’s called self-induced alopecia (hair loss), usually caused by allergies. If there’s anything out of the ordinary, or you notice your cat scratching excessively then it’s important that you pay a visit to your vet.

Overstimulation

As much as you kitty might love when you scratch their arched back, be careful not to overdo it. Overstimulation isn’t uncommon for cats when it comes to petting or playing. Ears flat against their head and eyes wide open could be clear indicators that your kitty wants you to stop, whether it’s a belly or a back rub.

If you notice your cat becoming uncomfortable when you scratch their back, even if it’s arched, then you should stop. Some cats are all about the “you can look, but you can’t touch,” so instead of making them feel agitated, move to all the parts that they’d feel happy for you to rub.

Do Cats Like To Be Pet?

Cats are truly wonderful companions and while with some it might take more time, most of them are eager to show their purrfect affection and receive it back in the form of petting. It’s also important to remember that any display of affection usually is appreciated, as long as it’s on their terms.

Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs When You Pet Them

For example, most cats must allow you to pet them first, if you don’t abide, they’ll most likely run away. So, whenever I meet a new cat, I just let them smell my hand and if I see them rubbing their faces against it then I’ll give them a good rub under the chin and behind their ears. According to Mikel Delgado, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who is also a certified cat behavior consultant, “when cats are rubbing on things, be it your hand, the corner of a wall or on another cat, they’re spreading their scent.”

You see there are special scent glands located in these places and Delgado explains that “leaving scent is a way that they mark their territory, and we believe that it has some calming effects for them.” In other words, our feline companions leave a scent imprint on us and accept us as their own. Probably to get more petting out of us!

Should You Pet Your Cat When They Arch Their Back?

Well, this will depend on whether your cat loves this process. Just because a cat will arch their back when you pet them doesn’t mean they actually enjoy it. In any case, you must be very cautious about how your cat reacts and how long they want to be stroked.

If you find your kitty purring, slow blinking, and in some cases even giving you a soft nibble, then there shouldn’t be an issue. This is why it’s so important to understand all the body language your cat is showing you. If on the other hand your cat mews and cries or shows signs of frustration, then you should stop. As mentioned before try avoiding overstimulation of the area and try to discover the kind of petting your kitty respond positively to.

Be Sensitive To Your Cat’s Petting Needs

It’s important to pay close attention to your cat’s reactions when you pet them. While both of my cats enjoy belly rubs, I’ve met plenty of cats that don’t. This taught me to never presume that all cats are the same and that they like to be touched the same way.

Be cautious and don’t let your cat become extremely agitated before you decide to stop petting them. Not only it can lead to an aggressive reaction with scratching and biting, but it could also mess up your relationship.

Cats are amazing specifically because consent is so important to them. If you don’t listen to your cat and act selfishly around them, then there’s a great chance your kitty will start avoiding you. In a sense, cats aren’t so different from us after all.

Conclusions

Who knew so much could be said about a cat’s arched back? This just goes to show that navigating ourselves in the cat world might certainly be confusing at times, but most of us would agree that it’s magical.

I believe that we should always try to appreciate our feline companions for their quirkiness, even if the magic comes from their rear!

Now it’s your turn to tell us why do you cats arch their backs when you pet them? Do they do it while they get a good scratch out of you, or do they point their behinds in your face first?

Marina Titova

Marina was cat-struck 8 years ago. It was early autumn when Dante, her grey cat, found her and adopted her. They’ve been inseparable ever since. Dante has been a great cat-teacher and BetterWithCats.net seemed like the perfect place to share his cat-knowledge.

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