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 in this position for as long as I oblige her. A few cats have exposed their bellies in front of me, but not quite 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 this?

A sign of trust

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If you ask feline behaviorists why cats roll over and expose their bellies, they will likely answer that it’s a sign of trust. Indeed, it is. But is it also an invitation to rub their bellies? If your cat exposes her tummy to you it means she trusts you, but that doesn’t mean she wants her belly rubbed. You may 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 in this position. They might do it for a few seconds, allowing you 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, even though she begs us to brush her multiple times each 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 whenever anyone comes to the door. My husband and I seem to be the only people she trusts.

Our other cat, Maddie, greets everyone who comes to our home and is a confident, friendly cat. But even she doesn’t roll onto her back. Like her littermate Sophie, she will lie on her side and let us pet or brush her exposed side. When she’s had enough on one side, she often turns over and lets us stroke the other 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. First of all, their vital organs are located there. Second, they’re more vulnerable in this position. They can still scratch and bite, but with much more difficulty. They can’t run or jump from this position, which is their first instinct in their flight-or-fight response.

Rolling onto their backs is the exact 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 when they are afraid and want to scare off any potential threats.

Cats are more likely to lie on their side and let you stroke their exposed side. They also are more likely to stick out their chins, because they love to have their cheeks and chins rubbed. Many cats will stick up their behinds, because they love to have the base of their tail scratched. But in my experience, few cats will lie on their back, and those who do turn back around in seconds if you try to rub their belly.

What rolling behavior is really about

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

At the time of her study, researchers attributed rollings 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 noted that the position was held for several minutes. In 79% of rolling behaviors, the stance was taken in front of another cat. The rolling cat often approached the other cat rapidly and then rolled, leading the researcher to believe this was an initiated interaction, not a response to a preceding behavior. Interestingly, the cats did not 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, but the older males either ignored or tolerated the younger cats’ presence, leading the researcher to believe that rolling behaviors may be an act of passive submission to prevent acts of overt aggression.

Hilary concluded that female cats rolled to demonstrate a readiness to mate, because this behavior occurred when they were showing other signs of estrus. Males rolled as a sign of subordinate behavior to prevent a conflict.

Know your cat

Cats transfer many of their cat-to-cat behaviors to their human family. Like humans, they have 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 next to their favorite people, while others like to vocalize and solicit petting or brushing. Some might flop onto their backs and allow a belly rub, but look for clues that your cat is uncomfortable. It may take time to understand their cues, but when we do, we should respect them.

If your cat rolls on his back and allows a belly rub, watch out 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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