A cat arching its back, the “Halloween Cat” pose, is usually a warning sign. It suggests that a cat is frightened and preparing to pounce. A cat adopting this position while being petted can have different meanings.
Cats sometimes adopt this position during petting to denote pleasure. If you are stroking a sweet spot, cats arch their back to provide easier access. The cat will also mark you with scent. Watch your cat’s verbalizations and body language as your cat may be overstimulated. Petting a cat beyond its tolerance will result in bites and scratches.
You may need to undertake a period of trial and error to truly understand your cat. Given time, you will be able to tell the difference between contentment and discomfort. This way, you can ensure that petting remains a pleasurable and bonding experience.
Table of Contents:
What Does It Mean When a Cat Arches Its Back?
Under normal circumstances, a cat arching its back is a warning. This is the pose of a frightened cat is preparing to attack. If you see this position in a stray cat, do not attempt to initiate petting.
An arched back during petting may have a different meaning, though. This pose can be a symbol of contentment in a cat. It is enjoying the physical attention being bestowed upon it. The cat is stretching to give you easier access to key parts of its body.
Unfortunately, an arched back can also mean the opposite. The posture can denote pain and fear. Many owners have ignored the warning signs that a cat has been petted enough. If so, scratching and biting will likely follow.
You will receive this treatment if you pet your cat against the grain of its fur. Few cats will tolerate this as it is instantly painful. The cat will arch its back if it feels you are deliberately inflicting discomfort. Only ever pet a cat the direction of natural fur growth.
The onus will be on you to learn your cat’s body language. Cats can be subtle. You are expected to pick up on non-verbal cues. Some cats will emit unmistakable growls when displeased, though.
Once you get to know your cat, you will understand its mannerisms. You will know if your cat enjoys petting, and if so, how much it will tolerate. Until this point, assume an arched back is a symbol of discontentment.
Pleasure and Contentment
Cats can have seemingly random whims. One of these is the act of arching the back to denote pleasure. Why would a happy cat adopt a posture so commonly associated with negative emotions?
The cat is simply living in the moment. Cats have sensitive skin, so a little petting can go a long way. The cat is adjusting its position so you can continue stroking a favored spot.
Your cat may also be stretching. Cats look immobile for hours at a time while napping. In reality, they are making a range of small movements. This stretch is part of a cat’s relaxation and contentment. It is enjoying the petting, and thus wishes to remain comfortable.
As we will discuss shortly, petting can become painful for cats. In order to ensure that your cat is happy, watch its body language. Typically, a happy and relaxed cat will adopt these mannerisms:
- Ears and whiskers in neutral positions
- Tail low and static
- Eyes half- or completely closed
- Slow, steady breathing
- Ignoring any sounds or smells in the vicinity
If your cat is relaxed, keep petting. If the cat willingly leapt into your lap, it is safe to assume it wanted attention. Just be gentle and always be mindful of your cat’s reaction. Give a clear and easy escape route, too. The cat will remain happy if it feels in control of a petting session.
Displaying Its Bum
Your cat may also arch its back to show you its bum. This looks like a strange behavior, but do not take offence. This is a sign of feline warmth. A cat showing your its bottom is asking for more affection.
Cats display their posteriors to each other as a greeting. In doing so, scents are released from the anal glands. You cannot detect these, but another cat will. They would understand that the aroma is one of friendship. Typically, play or mutual grooming will follow.
The cat may also use these pheromones to mark you. The cat is enjoying the petting and has marked you as a source of pleasure. This way, the cat remembers to approach again in the future. It is a subtle compliment.
Sometimes cats also show their bottom when hungry. This will be an association forged in kittenhood. The cat’s mother will have soothed it, then offered milk. You have now taken on the role of mother in the cat’s mind. The cat has been petted and now it must be fed.
Fear And Distrust
Gaining the trust of a cat is not always easy. It is especially difficult with rescue cats. A feline that underwent a difficult experience will be naturally cautious. Some cats are also nervous by nature. They will not welcome any kind of handling.
Sometimes, this is simply down to a cat’s nature. Just as not all humans enjoy hugs or handshakes, not all cats enjoying petting. There are other ways that you can show your affection for a cat.
Just because a cat rejects handling, it does not mean that it dislikes you. Look out for other common love languages in your cat. These include:
- Bunting (rubbing the head against you)
- Blinking eyes slowly
- Licking your hand
For an independent feline, simply staying in your home is a sign of love. Cats appreciate being fed and provided with shelter. Felines are survivors, though. Your cat knows that these needs could be met elsewhere. It chooses to live with you because it would miss you otherwise.
If your cat is not fond of handling, never force it into petting. This will not be a pleasurable experience for the cat. It will feel trapped, forced into a situation against its will. Bond with your cat by speaking to it. Use a high-pitched, almost falsetto tone of voice.
Let the cat approach you for attention. By keeping your cat in control, you are likelier to establish a secure bond. Until you achieve this, your cat will not enjoy petting.
Secure vs. Insecure Attachment
The idea of insecure attachment is more commonly associated with canines. According to Current Biology, cats also experience secure and insecure bonds with owners. A cat with a secure attachment is considerably likelier to enjoy petting.
You can test your bond with your cat by assessing its reaction when you return home. If you return after leaving cat alone for several hours, one of two reactions are likely.
- The cat briefly acknowledges you, then goes back to what it was doing
- The cat grows excitable and follows you around the home
The former is the behavior of a cat with positive, secure bonding. The cat is confident in its relationship with you. It trusts that you will meet its needs and will not go anywhere. It will seek out further interaction when it considers this necessary.
A cat that follows you around is insecure. It worried while you were gone that you would not return. This is why it is now behaving so clingy. The cat lives in a near-constant state of anxiety. A cat with an insecure bond is less likely to tolerate petting.
An insecure cat has not forged a bond of trust with you. When you start to pet it, the cat grows frightened. This leads to the arching of the back. The cat is uncertain as to your intentions. The cat just knows that you are much larger and are placing your hands upon it.
Manage this by getting your cat into an unbending, reliable routine. Ensure that you feed and play with your cat at the same time each day. This will eventually help your cat relax in your company. It is then likelier to seek – and enjoy – petting.
There is a thin line between pleasure and pain when petting a cat. Do not rely on purring as a sign of contentment. As explained by The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, cats also purr when uncomfortable.
If your cat arches its back while being petted, lock out for other signs of discontent. These could include:
- Squirming and attempting to escape
- Batting at hands with claws
- Ears pinned back
- Eyes widely dilated
- Watching hand movement intently
- Tail twitching or swishing wildly
If your cat displays these behaviors, it is no longer enjoying the attention. At best, the cat is tolerating your physical touch. Eventually, patience will wear thin. The cat will then claw or bite at your hand.
This happens because a cat can quickly find petting painful. What starts out as enjoyable can rapidly become sore or overstimulating. It is important to learn when your cat has had enough.
If your cat immediately arches it back upon petting, it has sensitive skin. This suggests that your cat has a long-term condition that has gone unnoticed. Cats can be masters of hiding discomfort. It may have been carrying a concern for a while.
Instead of launching straight into petting, gently check your cat’s back and head. Shine a flashlight for a better view. You are looking for anything untoward on your cat’s skin. Look out for cuts caused by conflict with neighborhood felines. In addition, investigate signs of:
There is a multitude of explanations for these issues. The most common is allergies. Look out for other warnings, such as sneezing and shortness of breath. Your cat’s food or something in the environment may be provoking a reaction.
Ensure that your cat does not have ringworm or a flea infestation. Ringworm is easy to detect. The cat’s skin will be covered with small, spherical scars. This will need treatment. Ask your vet for an antifungal ointment or medication. Fleas, similarly, must be addressed immediately. You’ll also need to fumigate your entire home.
Your cat may also have a hereditary skin condition. Ehlers–Danlos syndrome, or EDS, is the most common. Hereditary issues usually manifest while a cat is young, though. If your cat’s approach to petting has changed, an external – and treatable – infection will be to blame.
Overstimulation is a common explanation for a cat arching its back while being petted. This body language will be paired with the verbal and physical warnings that we previously discussed. The cat is now finding petting sore and will not tolerate it much longer.
The more you touch a cat, the likelier overstimulation becomes. Picture an itch on your arm or leg. Initially scratching this will provide relief and pleasure. Keep going once the itch has passed, though, and it becomes painful. This is how petting feels to an overstimulated cat.
Focus on parts of your cat’s body that you know it enjoys. The head, under the chin and the side of the cheeks are usually safe. You can then move to the back and spine. Pet and stroke gently here. Do not apply too much pressure.
Give your cat regular breaks from petting. Don’t get up and walk away or move the cat. Just lift your hands or place them by your side. This is especially important if the cat arches its back. The cat’s reaction will tell you all you need to know.
If the cat is overstimulated, it will seize this opportunity to escape. Leave the cat be, and let it approach you for future petting. If the cat wants further attention, if will nuzzle against you.
A cat arching its back during petting is not necessarily unhappy. It may simply be stretching and expressing contentment. Pause for a second or two and wait for a reaction. Over time, you and your cat will reach an unspoken understanding based on body language.