We’re often taught that cat behavior is pretty simple. A meow means this, hissing missing that and an arched back means something else.
But anyone who’s lived with a feline friend knows that things are rarely that simple and almost every cat behavior requires context to really understand. Take for example a cat’s habit of arching their back. You’ve probably seen cats arch their back when you pet them so you can pet them in the perfect spot but the arched back is also associated with frightened Halloween cats.
Then there’s the even more confusing scenario of cats that arch their back and then run or hop sideways. Some folks affectionately call this movement a crab walk. That means the same arched back body language has three very different meanings and different names as well!
So why do cats arch their back and run or hop sideways (AKA the crab walk)?
In most cases, the sideways run and hop is a sign of playfulness and excitement. However, cats will also arch their back and run sideways in an effort to look larger and more intimidating to potential threats so the exact meaning of this movement depends on the overall context.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going here and break down this cute cat behavior!
Reason 1: Your Cat Is Playing!
In most cases, the crabwalk or sideways run is part of your cat’s playtime routine!
It’s a way for cats to show other cats, or humans, that they’re interested in having fun similar to the play bow behavior you may already be familiar with in dogs. Your cat may want to be chased or they’re using it as a way to approach their favorite toy.
In most cases, there’s a specific target in mind for your cat. Your cat focuses their attention on whatever that target is, puff up, arch their back and sideways run in a little circle around it. If you’re the focus then it’s an invitation to play but the sideways run can just as often be directed towards an inanimate toy or in some cases…an almond.
Yes, you read that right, if your cat is extra silly like this one then you may see the crabwalk directed at some random homemade toys around the house:
So how can you tell if your cat’s sideways hop is connected to playtime?
Look for a specific target that your cat is focused on during their crabwalk silliness. It could be another cat, a toy, or even you! If the target isn’t a potential threat to your cat then it’s probably playtime-related side hops!
That distinction is extremely important because not only is the arched back and sideways run a sign of playfulness but it can also be a sign of a frightened cat too!
Reason 2: Your Cat Is Scared
The sideways run isn’t just all fun and games! It can also be the sign of a frightened or startled cat.
Making oneself look bigger is an extremely common trait in the animal world and our cats are no different. There are of course extreme examples like the pufferfish but even humans will push their shoulders back and stand a little taller in a confrontation.
While it’s to forget, our cats aren’t just apex predators, they’re also prey. Unlike bigger cats that dominate the top of the food chain, our house cats are comparatively quite small which means they need to use every trick in the book to look large and even some tricks to make predators completely uninterested in them.
An arching their back and puffing up all their fur makes cats look larger. Facing a potential threat from the side also helps make cats look bigger than they really are since it’s a big contrast from the front on look that highlights a cat’s slender profile. A sideways orientation can also help put your cat’s back claws in a better position to be used.
Then there’s the actual sideways run itself. Moving targets are generally more concerning than a stationary one and so your cat is moving not only to get a better position but also to maintain the intimidation campaign.
In other words, everything about the arched back and sideways runis designed to make cats look imposing!
Many cats will take on this posture as soon as they encounter something frightening. It could be another cat, a dog or even just a sudden surprise.
This can make things confusing when you’re trying to figure out the difference between playtime and a scared cat but the main thing to look for is where your cat is going. In other words, if your cat is crab-walking and sideways hopping to you then they’re probably ready to play.
But if on the other hand, your cat is sideways running or walking away from you, especially if they’re doing it slowly, then they may be feeling threatened.
Check out this video to see dozens of examples of cats sideways hopping towards a human friend for a great example of when it’s good!
Reason 3: It’s A Case Of The Zoomies!
In some cases, a cat’s sideways run and hop may be related to a case of the zoomies!
We’ve almost all witnessed a cat with zoomies and have been entertained by our cats sprinting around one side of the house to another while mixing in frantic climb on the cat tree and of course the occasional crabwalk!
But isn’t this the same as playing?
Not exactly, when cats is are in full-on zoomies there may not be a target of the sideways run and hop. At least not one that we will be able to figure out. That’s because cats are so wound up that they’re not really focusing on anything for more than a few moments.
As veterinarian Megan McCorkle explains “Most cats look like they’re having fun during the zoomies, even if it is some very chaotic fun and will readily engage in play if you present them with a toy.” But because the zoomies, or as they’re scientifically referred to frenetic random activity periods (FRAPS), are so chaotic cats may almost immediately move on to the next thing.
Not all cats will include a sideways run in their zoomies “routine” but if they do it’s generally nothing to worry about.
Reason 4: Your Cat Wants Attention
What happens when your cat arches their back and runs sideways at you?
My guess is that you probably don’t just ignore it!
Instead, you laugh, play with your cat or if you’re like most of the world may even decide to take a video to upload on YouTube! Whatever you do, the sideways run usually results in some kind of positive attention towards your cat!
Cats have several ways to get your attention including flopping down in front of you or my personal favorite trilling! The crabwalk is just another method that some cats will use more than others to get your attention and start a play session!
Do Kittens Do The Crabwalk Too?
Yes! Most kittens love to crabwalk or sideways hop and will often do it towards each as part of their play session. It’s actually quite common among kittens and not only will they do it to each other but also to humans in many cases.
Since kittens are so new to the world, which means a lot of things can be seen as scary, they’ll also be quick to take the arched back position and sideways run when they encounter something new. Assuming it’s not an actual threat most kittens will quickly loosen up and go right back into exploration mode!
If kittens are very young, they may be walking sideways as they learn to walk! However, kittens develop very rapidly so the window of time where sideways run and hops could be associated with learning to walk is at 3 weeks of age. At 4 weeks of age, kittens are relatively well coordinated and it’s fair to that any sideways walk after age is intentional.
Do All Adult Cats Sideways Run and Hop?
Every cat is a little different with their own style of communication and not every cat may decide to work the sideways walk into their body language routine- at least when it comes to playing.
The arched back and sideways run is practical and instinctual as a fear response and so just about every cat may take this position when they’re suddenly startled and feel threatened, regardless of their individual personality.
But when it comes to playtime, some cats just find the crabwalk more fun than others. As we saw in the video at the top of this page of the cat with an almond, it’s a go-to move for some felines while others may never do it all!
How Should You Respond To The Crabwalk?
Unless your cat appears to be frightened, the best way to respond to your cat’s sideways running is by playing in return! Whether it’s the zoomies or a plea for playtime most cats will be happy to start a play session mid-crabwalk!
You can toss out their favorite toy or if you’re feeling especially playful yourself you can even drop down to all fours and do your own crab walk. Just keep in mind that some cats may not exactly be ready for a big human to hit the ground and do their own crabwalk so your cat may be startled at first! Let your cat dictate the playtime and they’ll quickly understand that this is part of the game.
If, on the other hand, you suspect the crabwalk is in response to something your cat finds frightening then it’s even more important to go slow. Your cat is in a defensive position and it’s not a good idea to try and pick them up.
Instead, try to remove whatever is causing them to feel frightened, and if it’s not a real threat help your cat understand that. Sometimes simply interacting with whatever your cat is afraid of them can help understand that it’s not a real threat.
Should You Ever Be Worried?
The vast majority of the time, there’s nothing to be worried about when it comes to sideways running or hopping. It’s just a normal part of being a silly cat. Even when cats do it as a fear response, there’s likely nothing to worry about unless the threat is a real one. But for our comfortable house cats, that’s pretty unlikely.
But are there any medical conditions that can cause sideways running or walking?
Yes, but they’re not likely to look much like the crabwalk or sideways hop that we’re used to. Most medical conditions that change the way a cat walks won’t specifically encourage them to walk sideways as much as they’ll decrease overall coordination. That loss of coordination can eventually cause a sideways wobble or hop but it’s not the same as a sideways running we’ve seen thus far.
Still, let’s take a quick look at a couple of the conditions that could cause an unusual walk.
Feline Vestibular Disese
Just like with humans, cats have a complex ear that helps control balance and overall orientation with the world. In some cases, a specific part of the ear called the vestibular apparatus can stop working correctly and cause an uncoordinated gait in cats. Not only can it includes some sideways movement but also circling and completely tipping over.
We don’t completely understand what caused vestibular disease in some cases but ear infections of the inner or middle ear are a common culprit.
The important difference here is that cats suffering from vestibular disease will appear clearly uncoordinated unlike the very purposeful and coordinated movement of a sideways run or crabwalk.
Unlike vestibular disease which can appear overnight in an otherwise healthy cat, cerebella hyperplasia is a congenital condition that will show itself as soon as kittens start to move on thier own. In other words, this isn’t a possible explanation for a sideways running cat that was previously normal.
But it is an interesting condition where kittens and cats will shake and wobble as they walk or perform any other type of movement. These tremors are called intention tremors in that they’re associated with the cat’s intent to make a specific movement and you can see an example of this in this video. But when cats suffering from cerebella hyperplasia are just relaxing they’ll be tremor-free!
After prolonged hypoglycemia or low blood sugar as a result of feline diabetes, cats can lose coordination in their muscles or in some cases even suffer nerve damage in their feet and legs. Again, this won’t specifically cause a sideways run but it will cause an overall uncoordinated walk that could include some sideways movement.
Coordinated vs Uncoordinated Movements
As we’ve seen over these three conditions, the big difference between any medical explanation for sideways running and a behavioral explanation is the degree of coordination. Cats with these conditions, or any other that may cause an uncoordinated gait, will almost appear a little drunk.
On the other hand, cats that are showing off their best crustacean shuffle or asking you to play via a sideways run are usually quite coordinated and precise with their movements.
That wraps up everything you need to know about why cats run, hop and sometimes even skip sideways!
Like many cat behaviors, context is everything, and in order to understand why our cats are showing off their best crabwalk, we need to look at the big picture of what’s going.
But in most cases, it’s just another silly thing that our cats do to have fun!