We are often taught that cat behavior is quite simple. A meow means this, a hiss without that and an arched back means something else.
But anyone who has lived with a feline friend knows that things are rarely that simple and that almost all cat behaviors require context to really understand them. Take, for example, a cat’s habit of arching its back. You’ve probably seen cats arch their backs when you pet them so you can put them in the perfect spot, but arched backs are also associated with Halloween scaredy-cats.
Then there’s the even more confusing scenario of cats arching their backs and then running or jumping sideways. Some people affectionately call this movement a crab walk. That means the same arched body language has three very different meanings and different names too!
So why do cats arch their backs and run or hop sideways (also known as the crab walk)?
In most cases, running and jumping sideways is a sign of joy and excitement. However, cats also arch their backs and run sideways in an effort to appear 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 on here and analyze this cute cat behavior!
Reason 1: Your cat is playing!
In most cases, crab walking or running sideways is part of your cat’s play routine.
It is a way for cats to show other cats, or humans, that they are interested in having fun similar to the play bow behavior you are already familiar with in dogs. Your cat may want to be chased or maybe using it as a way to get closer to a favorite toy.
In most cases, there is a specific goal in mind for your cat. Your cat focuses his attention on whatever that target is, puffs up, arches his back, and runs sideways in a small circle around it. If you’re the center of attention, then it’s an invitation to play, but the sideways running can just as often be directed toward an inanimate toy or, in some cases, an almond.
Reason 2: Your cat is afraid
Sideways running isn’t just fun and games! It can also be a sign of a scared or frightened cat.
Making themselves look bigger is a very common trait in the animal world and our cats are no different. Of course, there are extreme examples like the pufferfish, but even humans will push their shoulders back and stand a little taller in a confrontation.
While it is to forget, our cats are not just apex predators, they are also prey. Unlike the larger cats that dominate the top of the food chain, our domestic cats are comparatively quite small, which means they must use every trick in the book to look big and even a few tricks to keep predators completely uninterested in them.
If they arch their backs and puff out all their fur, cats look bigger. Facing a potential threat from the side also helps cats look larger than they really are, as there is a great contrast from the front in appearance that highlights a cat’s slim profile. A sideways orientation can also help put your cat’s rear claws in a better position for use.
Then there is the actual sideways run itself. Moving targets are generally more worrisome than stationary ones, 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 side ledges is designed to make cats look imposing.
Many cats will adopt this posture as soon as they encounter something frightening. It could be another cat, a dog, or even a sudden surprise.
This can make things perplexing when you’re trying to discern out the difference between playtime and a scared cat, however, the primary element to appear for is where your cat is going In other words, if your catwalks like a crab and jumps sideways toward you, he’s probably ready to play.
But if, on the other hand, your cat runs sideways or moves away from you, especially if he does it slowly, he may feel threatened.
Reason 3: It’s a case of Zoomies!
In some cases, a cat’s running and sideways jumping may be related to a case of zoomies.
Almost all of us have witnessed a cat with zoomies and have been entertained by our cats running from one side of the house to the other as they mix in frantic climbing in the cat tree and, of course, the occasional crab walk!
But isn’t this the same as playing?
Not exactly, when cats are in full zoom, there may not be a goal to run and jump sideways. At least not one that we can decipher. That’s because cats are so agitated that they don’t really focus on anything for more than a few moments.
As veterinarian Megan McCorkle explains, “Most cats look like they’re having fun during the buzzing, even if it’s very chaotic fun, and they’ll readily engage in play if you give them a toy.” But because the buzzes, or as they are scientifically known as periods of frenetic random activity (FRAPS), are so chaotic, cats can almost immediately move on to the next thing.
Not all cats will include a sideways run in their zoomie “routine,” but if they do, it’s usually nothing to worry about.
Reason 4: Your cat wants attention
What happens when your cat arches his back and runs at you sideways?
I’m guessing you probably don’t ignore it!
Instead, you laugh, play with your cat or, if you’re like most of the world, you might even decide to take a video to upload to YouTube! Whatever you do, running sideways usually results in some sort of positive attention to your cat!