Most people would interpret a cat rolling over and showing their belly as an open invitation to give a belly rub and cuddle. It is not!
A cat can show you their belly for a few reasons:
1) As a sign of trust
Like dogs, cats can show you their bellies as a sign of trust. The cat is both a predator and prey in nature. The stomach is a vulnerable area to attacks from other predators. Cats will instinctively avoid showing you their belly, especially if they don’t feel 100% safe or secure.
This means that you should be even more honored if they show you their belly. Your cat is, in essence, saying “I trust you with my life” when they do so. This also means that if your cat never shows you their belly you should not take it as an insult. You should respect their boundaries and know they are acting on evolutionary instinct.
Our two cats Freja & Thor happen to be the perfect examples for this blog post. Freja shows her belly as a sign of trust quite regularly when she feels safe and happy. Thor does it very sparingly, although it does happen, as documented in the photo below!
2) As an act of defense
Rolling on their back may actually be a defensive measure, especially in a fight. You may have noticed this if you have ever observed cats fight or play-fight. If your cat is flattening its ears, making agitated sounds and looks like it is under stress it is better to back off and give them space. The photo below is of Freja & Thor when they were play-fighting, and Thor used this technique to defend himself and attack off of his back. Since they were play-fighting they weren’t making any agitated sounds like a cat would in a real “combat” situation.
3) To Relax or When Stretching
This one is rather self-explanatory. While stretching, many cats may roll onto their back while stretching or when they just want to relax a bit. As mentioned before, this is not an open invitation to touch their belly and you should proceed carefully and with respect for their boundaries (see further down for how to rub your cat’s belly in a way that does not annoy your cat). Freja gladly demonstrated the Stretch/Relax with the picture below 🙂
4) As an Act of Mating When They Are In Heat
Here neither Freja nor Thor can demonstrate for you as they are both spayed and neutered. When female cats are in heat they may show their bellies, especially when they roll around on the ground (which is a symptom of a female cat in heat).
Why does my cat still bite me when I rub their tummy?
Just because your cat is telling you they trust you, does not mean they are telling you to rub their belly. Cats generally do not like to get a belly rub for reasons mentioned above, so do not get surprised if your cat bites you.
Again, our two cats are the perfect examples of individual differences. Freja enjoys a belly rub from time to time – on her terms, whilst Thor will never let you pet his belly under any circumstance.
How Should I Rub My Cat’s Belly? (If They Like It)
With Freja, I always ask for permission first and follow her lead. Your cat is showing you an incredible amount of trust, so you should respect their boundaries! I ask for permission by slowly sitting down next to her or bending down close to her. If she stays on her stomach, I try to carefully place my hand on her stomach, and if her body language is positive I will begin to gently rub her belly.
Always Watch Your Cat’s Body Language
If she wags her tail, that is a sign that she is feeling uncomfortable and would rather have me stop, and of course, if she bites me it means “hands off right now!”. As soon as she wags her tail, even slightly, I respect her wishes and live her alone, and so should you if your cat does the same. Unlike dogs, cats wag their tails when they get annoyed, stressed or uncomfortable and this is a certain sign that you should stop.
Sometimes, she enjoys it though. Signs of this include purring, kneading with her paws in the air while the tail remains completely still. As long as your cat displays positive body language like this, you can continue to rub their belly. Remember to stop the moment the body language changes and they want you to stop. Another way for me to know that she wants to cuddle is by looking at her a bit and make eye contact. If she wants cuddles she usually lets out a “meow” to let me know she wants attention.
Should I Rub My Cat’s Belly?
In general, my advice would be resisting the urge to rub your cat’s belly. Be happy that they show you such a sign of trust and love and try not to violate it. If you want to try to see if your cat is one of those that like to have their belly rubbed, always look at their body language.