Why Do Cats Run Sideways When Scared?

When cat owners see their normally graceful felines suddenly scampering sideways, it can be an amusing yet bewildering sight. The curious cat behavior of sideways running often arises when a cat is feeling threatened or caught off guard. But why do cats resort to such an odd mode of movement in high-stress situations? Understanding the instinct behind the sideways scurry can provide cat owners essential insight into their pet’s experience of the world.

Fight or Flight Response

The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to a perceived threat. It is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system and causes the body to undergo changes to prepare it to either fight or flee from danger. This response evolved as a survival mechanism in animals, including cats.

When a cat senses a threat, its brain triggers the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate, blood pressure, and energy supply to the muscles while decreasing blood flow to areas like the skin and abdomen. Cortisol releases glucose into the bloodstream for extra energy. These changes prime the body to take immediate action (The four Fs of stress in pets).

Once ready for action, the cat has two options – to either stay and defend itself by attacking the threat, or to escape by running away. Both fighting and fleeing require increased strength and stamina, which the physiological changes provide. This explains why cats may suddenly attack or run very fast when afraid.

The fight or flight response lasts as long as the threat is present. Once the danger passes, hormone levels return to normal. However, cats who experience frequent or constant stress can suffer detrimental health effects.

Sideways Running Explained

When scared or feeling threatened, cats will often run sideways or in a crouched position. This sideways running allows them to keep an eye on the threat while moving to safety (Hepper, 2023). Cats have a wide field of vision, approximately 200 degrees, but running straight would mean having to look back over their shoulder to monitor the threat (Catster, 2022). So sideways running allows them to keep the threat within their peripheral vision and react quickly if needed.

Cats often run in a crouched or lower position as well when scared. This makes them a smaller target and allows them to hide more easily behind objects. Running sideways in a crouch is all about survival – they are ready to dart off in any direction to avoid danger. It comes from their instincts as both predator and prey animals (Hepper, 2023).

Survival Instinct

Cats adopt a sideways stance and run as a natural survival instinct when they feel scared or threatened. This instinct enables them to see threats while also moving away quickly (Source: https://www.quora.com/Why-does-my-cat-run-sideways-all-the-time). Running sideways allows cats to keep their eyes on a potential predator or danger while retreating to safety. It gives them a wider field of vision to spot risks and assess the environment as they move. This instinct comes from their ancestral days as solitary hunters, when they had to fend for themselves and avoid larger predators. The sideways stance helps them prepare to flee rapidly or defend themselves if needed.

Because cats are vulnerable animals due to their small size, the sideways stance and sprint is an adaptive behavior to survive threats. It allows them to simultaneously monitor the situation for ongoing risks and escape quickly. Even domesticated house cats retain this instinctual reaction when afraid. So next time your cat scampers sideways when startled, it’s simply their survival instincts in action.

Monitoring Threats

When cats run sideways in response to a perceived threat, this allows them to keep their eyes on the threat while moving to safety. Their sideways movement enables scanning the environment and maintaining visual contact with the predator or danger [1]. Keeping the threat within eyesight gives cats the advantage of monitoring the threat’s position and reacting quickly. This is an important survival instinct for felines.

Cats have excellent peripheral vision compared to humans. Their eyes are positioned more to the sides of their heads rather than the front. This gives them a wide field of view and ability to see almost all around them while running sideways [2]. Their sideways movement leverages their side-placed eyes to continuously track the threat while fleeing to safety.

Agility Advantage

Sideways running allows cats to make quick, agile movements to evade threats. When a cat runs sideways, they are able to keep their body lowered while still monitoring the threat by looking straight ahead. This gives cats an advantage in maneuverability and the ability to dodge rapidly while maintaining visual contact with the threat. Sideways running enables sharp, sudden changes in direction that would be more difficult if the cat’s body was upright. The cat can spring sideways to the left or right much faster than if they had to turn their whole body. According to research cited on CatBandit.com, sideways running is a key strategy for cats to show off their territory and assert dominance. By covering more ground sideways in a short time, they are able to mark a wider path efficiently.

Wild Instincts

Domestic cats have retained many of the survival instincts of their wild ancestors. Even though house cats are removed from the dangers of the wild, their instincts still guide their behaviors in the modern world (Cats and their Ancestral Instincts, https://www.petassure.com/new-newsletters/cats-and-their-ancestral-instincts/). For example, cats still exhibit territorial behaviors like rubbing against people and objects to spread their scent and mark their domain. They also retain strong predatory instincts, frequently stalking, chasing, and pouncing on toys or small prey like mice or insects that find their way indoors. Many cats even practice hunting skills on their owners through ambush attacks and playful stalking. Cats also have a strong scavenging instinct and can become obsessed with human food despite being fed regularly by their owners.

Other key survival behaviors that domestic cats retain from the wild include grooming and burying waste to avoid detection, climbing to high perches for security, and patrolling territory for intruders (5 Signs Your Indoor Cat is Still Wild at Heart, https://www.meowingtons.com/blogs/lolcats/5-signs-your-indoor-cat-is-still-wild-at-heart-2). So while domestication has softened the rough edges of feline survival, generations of selective breeding have not been able to override cats’ innate wild instincts.

Vision Priority

Cats rely heavily on their sense of sight, even more so than their sense of smell. According to research, the majority of cats prefer to use vision over smell (https://catsherdyou.com/do-cats-prefer-sight-or-smell/). Their eyesight is well-adapted for hunting, with a wide field of vision and the ability to see well in low light. Cats have a visual field of about 200 degrees, which gives them excellent peripheral vision on the sides and behind them. They can detect slight movements and track prey easily. This is why cats will often run or jump sideways when scared – their sideways field of vision allows them to keep monitoring threats while fleeing.

Individual Factors

A cat’s age, breed, and individual personality can all influence whether it is prone to sideways running when startled or scared. Kittens and younger cats often exhibit sideways scrambling more frequently than mature adult cats. This is likely because kittens are still developing coordination and balance, so their instinctive reaction is to run in an ungainly crab-like fashion when frightened. Additionally, certain breeds like Savannah cats and Bengals with some wildcat heritage tend to employ sideways running more often due to their natural agility and penchant for speed. Lastly, timid, high-strung cats seem especially prone to scrambling sideways versus calmer, less excitable cats. However breed disposition may play a role as well. According to research from this source, sideways running allows cats to monitor threats while staying mobile. Therefore, skittish cats likely utilize this instinctive behavior more frequently when spooked. But the tendency certainly varies on an individual basis as well.


In summary, cats run sideways when scared due to their innate fight-or-flight response and desire for self-preservation. Their sideways darting allows them to keep an eye on the threat while moving to safety quickly. This survival instinct traces back to their days as wild predators, when their agility and visual abilities gave them an advantage. While all cats possess this instinct, the specific triggers vary by individual based on genetics, early life experiences, and current environment. Understanding the evolutionary roots of feline behavior provides cat owners the opportunity to create a safe, enriching home.

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