Cats are notoriously unpredictable, but even more so during seemingly relaxing petting sessions. An accidental belly scratch or slightly longer strokes could land you on the receiving end of a swat, hiss, or bite. Yet, your cat’s response as you pet her lower back is flat-out bizarre, so why do cats act weird when you scratch the base of their tail?
Cats act weird when you scratch the base of their tail because of highly-sensitive nerve endings clustered at the tail’s base. A few gentle strokes might be soothing at first, but excessive tail petting could be overstimulating or painful. This scratching may mimic a sensual response in females.
Our feline friends may seem hasty or short-tempered from an outside perspective, but their actions make more sense when examined under a microscope. To learn about why cats act strange when you scratch their tail’s base, read on!
What Makes This Response ‘Weird’?
As finicky and aloof as they might be, cats crave physical affection. Gentle scratches along the ears and chin (the “safe zones“) can evolve into a rumbling purr and overpowering sleepy spell. Yet, this soothing reaction takes an unexpected detour as soon as the tail base becomes your prime target.
This “weird” response could range from mild to attention-grabbing, including:
- Long, drawn-out, high-pitched vocalizations
- Raising their butt upward (also known as “elevator butt”)
- Turning back to bite or nibble your hand
- Impulsively “licking” at the air or scratching her side
- Toppling over to the floor
- Seemingly marching or pacing in place
- A rippling appearance beneath the skin of the back
Even those who “translate” cat language quite well will struggle to understand this indecipherable code. Is the raised butt a good sign? Should you scratch harder or stop entirely? Are you toeing the line between friendly and aggressive?
These are all valid questions. The correct answer will depend on your cat’s personality, nerve sensitivity, and territorial instincts.
The domestic cat’s butt scratch reflex may seem absurd at first glance, but is it a natural response across the entire feline kingdom? The surprising answer lies in this video:
Even the quirkiest feline habits have a valid explanation. For example, cats knock items from a countertop to mimic a “hunt” and cover empty food bowls to fend off scavengers. The exaggerated, full-body contortion stemming from tail base scratches are no different. Let’s review why these innocent petting sessions make your cat so furious, excited, and responsive.
Sensitive Nerve Endings
Many cats enjoy gentle strokes above the tail while lulling themselves to sleep or cuddling with their favorite human on the sofa. Yet, the soft tickle can quickly turn into wildly irritating overstimulation. While the line between relaxation and angst is undoubtedly thin and easy to miss, the explanation is quite simple.
A cat’s tail is a 12″ (30.5-cm) extension of its highly-sensitive nervous system (spine), plotting tons of nerve endings in one small cluster near the tail’s base. Long or aggressive scratches can trigger a pain or stress response in these sensitive nerve receptors.
The resulting raised butt and ear-piercing meows could translate to, “Hey, that tickles!” or, “Ouch, that hurts!” Sudden irritation or even biting can be a sign of petting-induced aggression in tightly-wound felines.
Spreading Their Scent (With Your Help)
Cats have tons of scent glands all over their bodies, from between their toes and the corners of their mouths to the tops of their foreheads and bases of their tails. These sebaceous glands (and the pheromones they release) are the reason your cat rubs her cheek on yours and kneads on the couch — they send the signal that this object or place is your cat’s “property.”
By initiating these above-tail massages, you’re taking this scent-spreading ritual into your own hands. Your cat is pressing her butt against you and raising her back to give you better access to the scent gland near her tail.
Instead of rubbing her butt against you the way she does when you come home from work, you’re doing the “dirty work” for her. There’s nothing like a little teamwork to spread your kitty’s pheromones far and wide.
Reminds the Cat of Her Mom
The first four months of your kitten’s life are both hectic and filled with growing self-reliance. A curious kitten will follow her mother everywhere and quickly pick up on essential daily cues (i.e., where to sleep, when it’s time to eat, and how to groom). Kittens learn to raise their butts high into the air to give mom unobstructed access to their nether regions for two critical reasons:
- To experience a full-body cleanse (clean up the dirt and grime after a long day)
- To stimulate bowel movements by licking the anal area
No matter how old your cat is, these tail scratching sessions might remind her of early kittenhood alongside her mom and littermates. Do you see where this one is going? The resulting raised behind could be an awkward case of miscommunication.
As the “surrogate” parent to your beloved kitty, your cat’s unusual response to tail scratches could be a request for undercarriage grooming. Yes, your cat is indirectly asking you to clean her butt on her behalf.
A More Sensual Response
While the prospect of a grooming request sounds like the most bizarre explanation, this one takes the cake. Many animal experts theorize that these above-tail tickles are reminiscent of a mating session with a male cat. The base of the tail earns a reputation as a female kitty’s most sensitive erogenous zone.
When a male cat “mounts” a female kitty in heat, the female will raise her hindquarters, with the dynamic stimulating her tail’s base. These seemingly innocuous tail scratches might remind your cat of the discomfort (and excitement) of mating, providing sensual or sexual stimulation. Maybe sticking to those “safe zones” is a better option from this point forward.
Possible Medical Explanations
A cat with a healthy nervous system may feel a mild tickling sensation with above-tail scratches. However, for cats with feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS), even a gentle brush of the area can mimic a painful, electric shock. Now, 40 years since its initial discovery, veterinarians still don’t understand the mechanisms behind this aggravating neurological disorder.
Cats with FHS — aptly nicknamed “rolling skin syndrome” — may face abnormally sensitive skin and other symptoms that include:
- Bizarre yowls or vocalizations
- Unexplained pupil dilation
- Urinating outside of the litter box
- Twitching or a “rolling” sensation in the back
- Sudden bursts of sprinting around the house
- Staring off into space (looking at something that isn’t there)
- Tail mutilation due to the rippling or crawling sensations
A cat with feline hyperesthesia syndrome may hiss, growl, or attack her own tail to the point of mutilation — with or without a preceding above-tail tickle. If you suspect your cat’s bizarre response is beyond “typical,” visit your vet to rule out more sinister explanations.
In most cases, a cat’s “elevator” butt, drawn-out meows, and obnoxious posture is a normal response to overstimulation, but deciphering or decoding feline body language isn’t an exact science. Just because your cat doesn’t retreat or swat with this mysterious “butt scratch reflex,” that doesn’t mean, “I like this. Do it more!”
As a rule of thumb, stop petting your cat when she stops purring, stares at your hand menacingly, or sudden repositions. The pathway toward petting-induced aggression is often shorter than anticipated, and being observant can shield you from a bite wound or scratches.