Cats are known for their curious behaviors. For example, cats act weird when you scratch the base of their tail, are seen arching their backs and sleep in a range of contorted positions. Through everything your cat does, we can learn about how they are feeling and what they are thinking. We must try to understand this so we can ensure we give our cats the best lives possible.
However, their body language is very different from that of humans though, making cats notoriously hard to read. One position cats frequently lie in is on their backs. But why do cats lay on their backs? What can we learn about our felines from this position?
The answer greatly depends on other specifics. For example, some cats lie on their back as they trust you completely and feel safe. On the other hand, this paws-up position could be a defensive pose if your cat is feeling anxious or threatened. It could also be a sign of pain, sickness, or even pregnancy.
To learn more about what your cat is trying to say to you, keep reading! In this article, I provide twelve different reasons why cats lay on their backs. I also help you work out which one applies to your kitty so that you can understand what’s going on in your cat’s head.
Why Do Cats Lay on Their Backs?
1. They Feel Safe & Content
Almost every time you see a cat lay on its back it is because they feel extremely safe and content. They must trust you completely and feel very relaxed and comfortable in your home.
When in this position, cats are pretty vulnerable. Their paws are in the air so they cannot make a quick escape if a threat was to approach them. Moreover, their stomach is exposed, which is the part of their body that contains all of their vital organs. If something was to pounce and attack, their chances of survival aren’t the best.
As such, cats will only lie on their back in situations where they perceive there to be no nearby threats. İf your cat feels super safe, they might even fall asleep in this position. Cats purr when you pet them and make biscuits if they feel content and relaxed as well, so watch for these signs for confirmation that your cat feels protected and trusts you.
If you see a cat sitting like a human, this is another sign they’re super comfortable in your home. Their stomach is in the same exposed position and an unplanned getaway is more of a challenge. So, next time your cat is lying supine and they seem relaxed, give yourself a pat on the back. Your cat feels safe in your company so you must be doing something right!
2. They’re Ready to Defend Themselves
Although cats typically lie on their backs when they feel completely safe and secure, cats can also lie in this pose when they feel threatened. It is the only posture cats can lie in where they have all four sets of claws and their sharp teeth available and ready to attack. They could well be in defense mode and are preparing to fight off potential dangers.
Thankfully, it is easy to tell the difference between a content cat and one that is feeling defensive by paying attention to the rest of their body language. Whereas happy cats will have a relaxed body posture, those that feel threatened will be more alert and stiff. You might also notice their ears pressed against their heads, pupils dilated and claws out at the ready.
Another great way to tell how your cat is thinking is to look at its tail. Cats thump their tails when lying down when feeling agitated or annoyed. This can be one of the earliest signs that your cat is a little on edge. My cat bites me when I pet her if her tail is thumping – she doesn’t want to be touched right now and is trying to let me know.
If you think your cat is on the defense, I suggest keeping your distance. Give them the space they need to calm down to avoid tensions running high. If their defensive behavior seems more permanent, there might be long-term stressors in your home. I recommend going to your vet for advice on how to make them feel more comfortable and at ease.
3. They Want to Play
Another situation when a cat will want to have its claws and teeth at the ready is when they want to play. When cats play, they mimic how they hunt prey in the wild. This typically consists of stalking, chasing, pouncing, and batting their prey with their paws. Lying on its back with its paws up is a fun position from which they can copy this typical hunting behavior.
If you think your cat wants to play, go and get their toys and fulfill their wishes! Exercise is great for cats as it keeps them in good physical condition and provides mental stimulation. Playing together will also strengthen the bond between you and your cat, helping you become even closer.
You’ll want to use as many different toys as possible for maximum enjoyment for your kitty. Feather wands, stuffed toy mice, and balls for them to chase are all good options. You can also find a range of motorized toys and even automatic toys for them to play with while by themselves. These are a great option for busy owners as cats still get all the benefits even when you’re short on time.
4. They Want a Belly Rub
If you see your cat flop down in front of you and lie on its back, there is a chance they’re looking for a belly rub. When lying on their back you can easily get your hands on their fluffy tummies and give them a good old stroke!
However, many cats don’t like being rubbed on their bellies, so approach with caution. This is the most vulnerable part of your cat’s body and many feel threatened when touched here. This is true even if the person touching them is you! They might bite your hand or get their sharp claws out if you touch them here when they aren’t asking for it.
With that being said, some cats love belly rubs! My cat lets me stroke her tummy for ages and always purrs and rolls around in delight. This is all down to your cat’s preference. You’ll leed to learn where your cat likes to be touched and where they don’t and take things from here.
5. They Want to be Groomed
Alternatively, your cat could be asking to be groomed when it lies in its back. This is a behavior that extends from kittenhood. Kittens will lie on their backs and display their tummies to their mother when they want to be groomed. Since you are your cat’s mom now, adult cats can do the same to you and request a brush and a stroke.
In this situation, go and get your cat’s brush and start grooming them. Brushing your cat regularly has many benefits, especially if they are long-haired breeds such as Maine Coons or Persians. Just a few of these benefits are as follows:
- Cats love being brushed and so it keeps them happy and content
- Regular brushing keeps their coats shiny, healthy, and in all-round good condition
- Brushing helps prevent the formation of mats and clumps
- It removes loose hair from your cat’s coat so less ends up on surfaces around your home
- Cats that are brushed regularly will throw up fewer hairballs
- It can help strengthen the bond between you and your cat
6. It’s a Comfortable Position
Your cat could be lying on its back simply because it finds this position comfortable. After all, why would your cat assume a position that didn’t feel good? This position gives them the chance to stretch out. They can even massage their backs on the floor if they roll gently from side to side.
Every cat will have their own definition of what is the comfiest position. Some cats won’t find this position comfortable at all and might prefer lying curled up in a ball or sitting in the cat loaf position. However, lying supine might just be your cat’s favorite!
If your cat is enjoying the pose, it will look content. Their body posture will be relaxed, eyes slowly blinking, and ears and whiskers in a neutral position. If your cat gets really comfortable, don’t be surprised if they end up falling fast asleep.
7. They’re Cooling Down
Another reason why cats lay on their back is to cool down. This might surprise owners as cats are often seen seeking out the warmest spots in their homes. You will often see cats basking in the sunshine or curled up next to the radiator. This is because the average core body temperature of cats is slightly warmer than that of humans.
However, cats can get too warm occasionally if the weather is too hot or the thermostat in your home is turned up too high. Laying in a stretched-out position on their back and help the air escape from their bodies. Moreover, it gives them a chance for their tummies to air which are pressed against the floor or other bodies parts in most other positions.
There are a few other ways that cats cool down, which include:
- Location: Cats that are too hot will sit in shaded or well-ventilated areas of your home. They will also avoid sitting near radiators and seek out cold surfaces instead such as a tiled floor.
- Grooming: When cats are too warm they groom more than they usually would. The evaporation of saliva from their skin has a cooling effect. Sometimes my cat licks me when I pet him to try and cool me down too!
- Sweating: Sweating from their paw pads which too has a cooling effect when the sweat evaporates. When cats lie on their backs with their paws in the air, this can make the evaporation process more efficient.
In some cases, cats are unable to cool themselves down effectively even with all these methods! They will start to pant and breathe with their mouth open. At this point, cats are at the risk of overheating and developing heat stroke. Help your cat cool down by stroking it with a cool damp cloth and encourage them to drink to avoid dehydration.
8. They Have an Upset Stomach
Your cat could lie on its back as it has an upset stomach. Lying on their stomach when it is bloated would be very uncomfortable! Therefore, lying on their backs seems like a good solution to the problem until their nausea has passed.
If this is why your cat is in this position, you can expect to see other signs of stomach upset, including loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. Lethargy is another common symptom as cats will lack energy due to a lack of obtaining essential nutrients through their diet.
Cats can get an upset stomach for all kinds of reasons. They might have simply eaten their dinner too quickly or have eaten too much at once. Alternatively, they could have eaten a non-food item or toxic substance. Many underlying illnesses can also have stomach upset as a symptom. For example, internal parasitic infections, diabetes, food allergies, and hyperthyroidism.
If your cat seems to recover quickly from its stomach upset then there isn’t much for you to worry about. However, if your cat doesn’t eat or drink in 24 hours or has vomiting and/or diarrhea that doesn’t seem to subside, call your vet.
9. Your Cat is Pregnant
If you have an unspayed female cat that is lying on its back, it’s worth asking whether or not your cat could be pregnant. Pregnant cats will often lie belly up to protect the litter of kittens growing inside their wombs. Plus, lying on their pregnant belly could be uncomfortable for your cat.
Pregnancy can be hard to spot in cats, particularly in overweight or obese cats as it is difficult to notice a visible “baby bump” or weight gain. With that being said, some of the symptoms you might notice include breaks in their heat cycle and morning sickness. Clinginess with their owners is common as well, and my cat follows me everywhere when she is pregnant.
If you suspect that your cat is pregnant, take them to see the vet. They need to check that your cat is pregnant and examine their overall health status to ensure the mother is fit for delivery. Your vet will also be able to offer advice on caring for your cat including changes to their diet and how to set up an ideal birthing place for your kittens to be born.
10. Your Cat is in Heat
Unspayed female cats will often lay on their backs when they are in heat. This is the point in a cat’s estrous cycle that they are fertile and can be impregnated by a male cat. They will usually be in heat for six days, during which time they will look for a suitable mate.
Laying on their backs in one way in which females will try to attract a mate. When lying down, they will roll around the floor and rub their bodies against as many different surfaces as possible. Doing this transfers pheromones from their bodies onto these objects. Although humans cannot smell these pheromones, male cats can and will know they are from a female that is ready to mate.
Alongside their strange rubbing and rolling behavior, cats are highly vocal when in heat and will yowl as if they are in pain. This is another way in which they attract males in the neighborhood. Other notable symptoms of heat include:
- Increased affection: Cats tend to be much more affectionate towards their owner when in heat due to hormonal changes in their bodies.
- Inability to Relax: When a cat is in heat it will seem restless. This is because they are so focused on finding a mate and so cannot relax.
- Trying to Get Outside: Even cats that are indoor-only will try to get outside when they are in heat. This is where all their potential mates will be found.
- Rear in the Air: Alongside lying on their back, cats in heat will also often sit with their bottoms raised in the air. This is a cat’s mating position.
These symptoms are all pretty notable, so you should be able to spot whether or not your cat is in heat without difficulty. Unless you want an unwanted pregnancy, always keep your cat inside your home while they are in heat and away from any unneutered males in your home.
If their behavior in heat becomes a nuisance, I also recommend getting your cat spayed. This not only protects against unwanted pregnancy but also prevents cats from contracting diseases of the womb and uterus. If you are against this, pheromone sprays and catnip can help to calm your cat down.
11. It Relieves Tension Headaches
One interesting reason why cats lay on their back is to relieve tension headaches. These can develop as a result of psychological problems such as stress, anxiety, or fear. Environmental factors can trigger tension headaches as well such as a poor diet or dehydration. They can also be a side effect of injury to their head or neck.
When lying on its back, your cat’s body weight shifts to the back of its head and allows blood to flow to its brain. This helps to relieve muscle tension that is causing the headache to ease the pain in their neck, skull, and face.
12. It Eases Joint Pain
Do you have a cat that suffers from arthritis or another joint and mobility issue? If so, your cat could lie on its back to take the pressure off its joints. They will be putting pressure on their sore joints for the majority of the day whenever they’re moving, standing, or eating. Lying on their back with their paws in the air is one of the only positions where pressure on their joints is completely removed.
Other symptoms of arthritis in cats include:
- Failure to use their litter box
- Stiffness and/or limping when moving
- Reluctance to move or play
- Swollen and inflamed joints
Arthritis is much more common in elderly cats whose joints have slowly deteriorated with old age. Obese or overweight cats are also more at risk as their joints have to bear more weight, making them deteriorate at a faster rate than usual. However, cats of any age and any weight can suffer from arthritis.
You’ll need to take your cat to the vet so they can prescribe pain medication to help manage the condition. Small changes at home can also make a big difference to your arthritic cat’s quality of life. For example, get a large low-entry litter box that is easier for cats with reduced mobility to use. Keep all their essentials on one floor in your home as well so they don’t have to travel long distances or climb stairs to reach something they need.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
As you can see, cats lay on their backs for all kinds of reasons! It could be a show of trust or defensiveness, they could be asking for something from you – be that playtime, a stroke, or a brush – or this position could ease the pain they are feeling from headaches, arthritis, or stomach upset. Pregnancy and heat are two other possible options.
The way to differentiate between each of these is to look for other symptoms and body language signals. Only by combining everything can we work out what our cats are thinking and feeling. Try to work this out next time you see your cat lying supine so you can give them what they want and need.