Why Do Cats Roll Over Onto Their Backs But Don’t Let You Touch Their Tummies?


My sister’s Golden Retriever solicits belly rubs by plopping down in front of me and rolling onto her back. She stays on this position for so long as I oblige her. A number of cats have exposed their bellies in front of me, but not quite just like the dogs I’ve known. When cats roll onto their backs, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re soliciting a tummy rub. So why do they do that?

An indication of trust

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For those who ask feline behaviorists why cats roll over and expose their bellies, they are going to likely answer that it’s an indication of trust. Indeed, it’s. But is it also an invite to rub their bellies? In case your cat exposes her tummy to you it means she trusts you, but that doesn’t mean she wants her belly rubbed. You might have noticed that one or two tummy rubs will get her to quickly turn back around.

Not all cats roll onto their backs and expose their tummies. That’s because most cats feel vulnerable on this position. They could do it for just a few seconds, allowing you just a few pets to their undersides, then they quickly right themselves.

My cat Sophie has never rolled onto her back in front of me or my husband, despite the fact that she begs us to brush her multiple times every day. Sometimes she so enjoys the brushing that she falls onto her side and lets us brush her exposed side. Sophie will sit next to us while we’re reading or watching TV, but she hides at any time when anyone involves the door. My husband and I appear to be the one people she trusts.

Our other cat, Maddie, greets everyone who involves our home and is a confident, friendly cat. But even she doesn’t roll onto her back. Like her littermate Sophie, she is going to lie on her side and allow us to pet or brush her exposed side. When she’s had enough on one side, she often turns over and lets us stroke the opposite side. Even my most outgoing cats have never solicited tummy rubs like my sister’s Golden Retriever.

Preferred petting zones

Cats are protective of their bellies for good reason. Initially, their vital organs are situated there. Second, they’re more vulnerable on this position. They will still scratch and bite, but with far more difficulty. They will’t run or jump from this position, which is their first instinct of their flight-or-fight response.

Rolling onto their backs is the precise opposite stance from their defensive posture. Rising on all fours with their backs raised, tail erect and fur standing on end is a stance cats adopt after they are afraid and wish to scare off any potential threats.

Cats usually tend to lie on their side and allow you to stroke their exposed side. In addition they usually tend to stick out their chins, because they like to have their cheeks and chins rubbed. Many cats will stick up their behinds, because they like to have the bottom of their tail scratched. But in my experience, few cats will lie on their back, and those that do turn back around in seconds in the event you attempt to rub their belly.

What rolling behavior is actually about

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Rolling appears to be a behavior cats do for other cats in specific circumstances. At the very least, that’s what a 1994 study showed and subsequent studies confirmed. Hilary N. Feldman of Cambridge University’s Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour authored the study, “Domestic Cats and Passive Submission,” which was published within the journal Animal Behaviour. She studied reproductively intact cats from two semi-feral cat colonies in a big outdoor enclosure and picked up data over 18 months.

On the time of her study, researchers attributed rolling behaviors to a defensive response in cats before an attack or counterattack. But Hilary concluded that rolling has several social functions in cats.

She described a “cat rolling onto its back, with forepaws held cocked, often with the legs splayed and abdomen exposed.” The posture reminded her of dog-like behavior, and she or he noted that the position was held for several minutes. In 79% of rolling behaviors, the stance was taken in front of one other cat. The rolling cat often approached the opposite cat rapidly after which rolled, leading the researcher to consider this was an initiated interaction, not a response to a preceding behavior. Interestingly, the cats didn’t vocalize when rolling.

Hilary observed that females rolled while in heat in front of adult male cats, but 61% of the rolling behaviors were males rolling in front of other males. In almost every instance, younger males rolled in front of older males, however the older males either ignored or tolerated the younger cats’ presence, leading the researcher to consider that rolling behaviors could also be an act of passive submission to stop acts of overt aggression.

Hilary concluded that female cats rolled to show a readiness to mate, because this behavior occurred after they were showing other signs of estrus. Males rolled as an indication of subordinate behavior to stop a conflict.

Know your cat

Cats transfer lots of their cat-to-cat behaviors to their human family. Like humans, they’ve various ways of giving and receiving affection, showing trust and keeping peace.

Some cats sit on laps. Many give their people head bumps. Some prefer to sit down next to their favorite people, while others prefer to vocalize and solicit petting or brushing. Some might flop onto their backs and permit a belly rub, but search for clues that your cat is uncomfortable. It could take time to grasp their cues, but once we do, we must always respect them.

In case your cat rolls on his back and allows a belly rub, be careful for these cues that your cat is uncomfortable and stop immediately:

  • quickly rolls back around
  • shoots you a shocked look
  • swats your hand
  • scratches your hand
  • bites your hand


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