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Ask A Vet: Why Does My Cat Arch His Back When He Is Afraid?

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When we think of cats arching their backs, often Halloween black cats come to mind. Scary black cats assuming this posture are featured on posters and banners everywhere in October. Even cupcakes can bear plastic black cats looking like this. We have all seen our own cats respond this way when startled.

Have you ever thought about why a scared cat arches his back and fluffs his tail?

The act of raising the hair in response to fear is called piloerection and occurs involuntarily under the influence of adrenaline (also called epinephrine). When a cat becomes frightened, there is an automatic release of adrenaline and the tiny muscles around the hairs respond by contracting and making the hair stand erect. A similar reflex makes him arch his back.It is believed that the raised back and hair have evolved to make the cat appear larger to his enemy, but he does not have to decide that he wants to look larger. It just happens. Some other effects of adrenaline are increased heart rate and dilated pupils.

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When the adrenaline is metabolized in the cat’s body as the stressful stimulus resolves, the hair will start to lie down and the cat will lower his back.  The effect does not hurt the cat and does not differ much from the goosebumps that people get when they are watching a distressing movie or hear stressful news.  When you see those Halloween posters, you can truly know that although the cat in the picture looks horribly affected, the affect will pass and he will be none the worse for the wear.

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Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
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