Spend enough time with your cat and you’ll start to notice some rather odd behaviors and movements that don’t seem to have an explanation.
One such behavior: fluffing up his tail, arching his back and jumping sideways.
The good old sideways jump makes him look like a Halloween decoration, and at first, it’s bound to provoke a smile and a chuckle from you. But after that initial amusement, you’re left wondering: what was that all about?
To find out the answer, we’ll need to explore cat body language and psychology. Let’s go!
The Secrets of Sideways Jumping in Cats
An Intimidating Posture
When cats feel threatened, their instinct is to make themselves look as big as possible. It makes sense: bigger things are more intimidating, so the bigger you look, the less likely you’ll be messed with.
Unfortunately for him, your cat isn’t exactly the biggest guy around. This means that he needs to put a little extra effort into enlarging himself when he encounters a threat.
So when the situation calls for a big, scary cat, he starts by puffing his fur out around him, especially on his back and tail. The fur along his spine will stand on end, and his tail will fluff out until it looks like a bottle brush.
Then it’s time to modify his posture. He’ll stand up straight and tall, with all his legs extended as far as they can, and he’ll arch his back up high into the air.
And for a little extra size boost, he may turn his body sideways towards his target, relying on perspective to make him look larger and more formidable.
These behaviors are hard-coded into your cat’s brain, but that doesn’t mean they come naturally. As we’re about to see, looking large requires an intense training regimen that begins in kittenhood.
Sideways Jumping Starts in Kittenhood
Is there a more joyful time in a cat’s life than kittenhood? It’s a carefree phase in which his only responsibilities are growing up and learning about the world.
Under the protection of their mother, kittens are free to explore their surroundings and themselves. They spend a good chunk of this time playing with each other — but all this fun has a more serious purpose.
Through play, kittens can learn how to interact with other cats, express their emotions clearly and handle different situations they’ll encounter later in life. Playtime is the safest time to practice dealing with threats, defending themselves and fighting with intruders.
And that’s why kittens are so frequently inclined to fluff themselves up, arch their backs and jump sideways.
As a precursor to play-fighting, sideways jumping is a youthful expression of good intentions. Adding a jump is a way for the kittens to signal that although they look like they’re ready to attack, nobody’s actually mad at anyone else.
But it’s also just plain fun to jump around with your siblings. It turns an otherwise dull task — practicing looking big and scary — into an enjoyable play session that also provides an outlet for that limitless kitten energy.
Though most kittens jump sideways at some point, most grow out of the behavior as they get older. A cat’s need for play naturally decreases with age, so it makes sense that playful sideways jumping ebbs as well.
But a few cats continue juping sideways well into adulthood. What’s up with that?
Adult Cats Can Jump Sideways, Too!
Your adult cat is a lot mellower than he was as a kitten. He still loves to play, but he’s also grown more confident in his body language and ability to express himself, so he doesn’t jump around and roughhouse as much as he used to.
So when he puffs up his tail and arches his back, you know something’s wrong. He must feel threatened or afraid, and it’s probably a good idea to get out of his way.
But then he throws a sideways jump into the mix and leaves you totally baffled. Is he mad at you? Did you do something so upsetting that he’s ready to attack you?
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Worry not — that sideways jump is the key indicator that it’s all in good fun.
Cats that truly feel threatened will fluff up and arch their backs, but they don’t jump sideways towards the threat. Rather, they stand their ground, hiss, stare and pin their ears back.
Absent those dead giveaways, in all likelihood, your cat is feeling playful, not aggressive. By jumping sideways at you, he’s replicating his experience play-fighting with his siblings, and the best thing to do is humor him.
Such a return to kittenhood is uncommon, so savor it! It’s a compliment that he trusts you to read his body language and interact with him in such a close way.
So when you see your cat jump sideways, get out that dangly feather toy or stuffed animal and join in the fun! Just as playtime bonded him with his siblings, it can bond him and you, too.
"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
-- Terry Pratchett