When My Cat Rolls Over on His Back Does He Want a Belly Rub?

Posted on 01 Dec 2015 23:32 by EricT

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You ever noticed how quick we are to recognize the differences between cats and dogs in terms of they way they each behave, but not in terms of how we behave towards them? The belly rub is one such instance of this.

A well-socialized dog will go bonkers for a belly-rub. When a dog rolls over on his back and presents his belly, yes, he is placing himself in a submissive position and displaying trust, if you want to be psychological about it. But mostly, he's asking for a belly rub.

Then, your cat rolls over, you rub his belly, and he grabs your hand between his front paws and starts kicking at it with his back paws, while biting at your fingers. Or some such behavior. Why is your cat asking for a belly rub and then biting and scratching you for your trouble?

See what happened? We know good and well that cats and dogs are very different, but then we expect an action by a cat to have the same ramification as it does for a dog.

Is Belly Up a Submissive Position for a Cat?

Watch two cats play, which usually means spar. Often, one cat ends up on her back while the other gets the "upper-hand." Is she being submissive and crying uncle? Is she saying, "you win, I submit?"

No. Cat's do not seem to have specific postures that signal absolute submission or that they recognize they are lower on the totem pole. When a dog rolls over for his human, he is "bowing to the alpha" so to speak and seeking positive attention. And, you wouldn't see a dog try to fight from this position!

But, a cat in this position has all her weapons free for action, including four claw-laden paws and lots of sharp teeth. So, when she is sparring with another cat and ends up on her back, she is just using all her weapons to ward off an attack and to, of course, attack herself. She isn't giving up, it's just part of the dance. The back legs in particular are very powerful and she cannot use these while standing up.


Two cats play figthing, one cat on its back

The cat on its back is not being submissive! Rather, it's freeing
up all the weapons at its disposal.

Two cats play figthing, one cat on its back

The cat on its back is not being submissive! Rather, it's freeing
up all the weapons at its disposal.



Watch your cat play with a "prey toy." Have you noticed how he rolls on his back and holds the toy in his fore-paws while biting it and kicking at it with his back claws? Obviously, he isn't submitting to his toy! This is one way cats deal with prey.

So, no, when your cat rolls on her belly, she is not being submissive like a dog.

Do Cat's Like Belly Rubs?

For the most part, cats do not like belly rubs. Cat's prefer most of your massaging to be around the head. The sides of the mouth, under the chin, around the ears, etc. are all good places. But most cats do not like their belly to be rubbed. Your cat will probably tolerate a little bit of belly rubbing from you, but if it goes on too long, he or she will either go away or make you stop in the way cats typically do, with teeth or claws, or both.

cat laying on back not asking for a belly rub
cat laying on back not asking for a belly rub


So Why Does My Cat Roll onto Her Back?

Some sources will tell you that the only reason a cat rolls onto its back is to ready its weapons and say, if you attack me, you're going to get the back claws, similar to the explanation above. I would be wary of such absolute statements.

Although it is not clear that cats display submissive behavior, per se, the idea that a cat will never roll onto her back and show her belly unless she is fearful or warding off attack flies in the face of the experience of cat lovers everywhere. Cats are individuals and sometimes, when feeling confident and safe, they may actually sleep on their back. A cat will present their belly to the sun, to gather in its warmth. A cat may have any number of reason to be on her back. She may just like it. It seems fairly clear that when your cat rolls onto her back and shows her belly, seeming happy and relaxed, she is showing you a LOT of trust! Her underside is exposed. However, should you try to pet her there, you are, in essence, violating her trust.

Another thing to understand is that the the "fight or flight" message ignores that for cats, hunting and play, or fighting and play, are wrapped up together. Your cat may roll onto his back to invite you to play. After all, grabbing your hand and biting and kicking is a good time for a cat. At least, it is a good time to some extent. Cats can become overstimulated by such play, which produces stress. Obviously, there are other good reasons for not letting your cat use your hands as a chew toy.


orange cat lying on his back with his belly up, getting some sun
orange cat lying on his back with his belly up, getting some sun


Charming on the Back

At other times, we see cats rolling onto their backs and doing what we call "charming." We, of course, have no idea what they have in mind, but this involves twisting their body to and fro, rubbing their back against the floor, and looking at us upside down and from different angles, while perhaps throwing in a bit of grooming here and there. They seem to be saying, "look how cute an innocent I am." Well, this does seem to be exactly what is happening. The charming posture seems to be about trust and love.

So, a cat will go belly up for many different reasons. But, when your cat gets into the charming position, he or she will probably appreciate it more if you make ooh and ahh sounds and generally talk sweet to them in a soothing (probably low) voice. Their tummy areas are very sensitive! They can't take much touching there.

Wait a minute? Whose tummy isn't sensitive? When someone touches your belly isn't it ticklish? Sure is for me.

See also My Cat Suddenly Bites Me When I'm Petting It!

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