Why Do Cats Show Their Bellies, Then Get Mad When You Pet Them?



Most cat owners have experienced what we call the "Tummy Rub Trap": When your cat rolls over onto their back and shows their soft, fluffy bellies as if offering an invitation for pets, but when you do - you get swatted or scratched. 

So, what's the deal? Why do some cats show us their bellies only to get upset when we actually pet them? 

It's all instinct.

A cat's typical response when its belly is touched is to go into defensive mode - they swat or scratch and may even gently bite. Your cat's not being mean, it's simply a natural reflex of protection.  This stems from their natural instincts as both predators and prey

Cats are excellent predators - some of nature's most efficient hunters, in fact, with feral cats having a hunting success rate of 70% in open terrain (lions have less than 30%). But domestic cats are also small enough to be prey - and they know it!  As prey, cats know that their belly is one of their most vulnerable areas - exposing it gives potential predators access to their vital organs.

So if your cat attacks you when you pet their belly, you're likely just triggering their natural protection reflex.

A sign of trust. 

When a cat lies on its back and shows you its belly, the cat is relaxed, comfortable, and doesn't feel threatened. It feels safe enough to expose its vulnerable areas without worrying about being attacked. A kitty belly is not necessarily an open invitation for tummy rubs - your cat is basically saying, "I feel safe around you. I know you won't attack me." 

Cats, like humans, are unique individuals. Some cats might enjoy belly rubs. Others will tolerate a pat or two. And other cats, who might have anxiety, hate belly rubs! It all depends on your individual cat, and as a responsible pet owner, respecting their boundaries and sensitivities. 


Another reason for springing the Tummy Rub Trap? The hair follicles on the belly and tail area are hypersensitive to touch, according to Lena Provoost, an animal behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. So petting a cat on the belly (or tail area) can be overstimulating for our feline friends, and cause them irritation. This is why some cats might allow a pat or two on their bellies - but try for a third? No, thanks! 

“Cats prefer to be pet and scratched on the head, specifically under their chin and cheeks where they have scent glands," Provoost told National Geographic

When it comes down to it - pay attention to what your cat likes and doesn't like. Cats all have their individual preferences and wants - and they're certainly not shy about showing us! I've got more than a few scratches that can attest to that! 


  • Shireen D.

    I definitely learned the hard way with my son’s cat. Just the other day, actually, which is what led me here :) I assumed we had a decent relationship because he would run up to me, “talking” and rolling on the floor ahead of my steps. Showing his belly often but I never rushed into contact. I am a dog person, to be truthful, and understand their signals MUCH better. This particular time, I reached down to pet his head and he must have thought I was going elsewhere or truly didn’t want to be touched because he did that exact described grab, bite and kick with the back legs motion. Really tore up my hand and upper arm. Believe me, I won’t be initiating ANY petting anymore.

  • Erin

    My Calibelle will show me her tummy 86 times in a 24 hour period, and not one of them is an invitation for a tummy rub. We have a very loving, trusting relationship. Clearly, or she wouldn’t sleep belly-up next to me for two hours while I read a book. She’s definitely the boss of her fur, though. I know her boundaries, and unless there’s some reason having to do with what’s best for her health and safety, I don’t do anything I already know she isn’t into.

    Frances down there isn’t “better at catting” than anyone here. She (?) was just fortunate enough to meet a cat who didn’t mind having her belly touched. A wonderful, rare and lucky thing.

  • francis cagney

    Sorry this a long post. And I hope it formats to paragraphs. But to summarise

    Rally my ex girlfriend’s cat and I were close. I hadn’t seen her for a few months but she was pregnant again and I came over to visit.

    At one point Rally lay on her back, shaking the walls with purring while I gently stroked her pregnant belly.
    You do indeed need permission or better an invitation to stroke a cat’s belly.
    And you need to do it competently.

    I didn’t realise cat’s bellies were physically sensitive but did know about the implicit vulnerability, and instinctively knew to be very gentle.

    Is a pregnant cat less or more likely to accept belly rubs?

    Here’s an account of the evening. I jokingly call myself fluent in cat. From a cat perspective I’m like a mental retard who can barely express and understand about 30 phrases, but a cat would grudgingly admit that’s way better than most humans.

    I arrived and the three cats inspected me from a safe distance and then hid.
    I said hello to Rally, and Lady Gaga. Didn’t actually know the almost grown kitten’safe
    name Ballerina.

    We sat down to dinner and after 5 minutes Ballerina stood 10 metres away unobtrusively
    observing me. Rally and Gaga still hid/sulked

    After about 30 minutes Gaga entered the eating area, and grabbed a quick glimple at me
    before positioning out of sight. A little later Rally jumped on the chair beside
    granting me permission to give her the scratches she craved.

    After dinner Rally lay on the sofa. I said hello to the other 2 cats, then approached
    Rally as if I’d just learned exciting news. I pointed at her belly and asked was she
    having babies again, and pointed at her daughter.

    Told her in an excited voice what a clever cat she was. And sniffed her belly. Not for
    my benefit, but to show interest. She wasn’t comfortable with my sniffing.

    I just started patting her a little vigorously on the back. Then I gave one long
    very gentle stroke over her side and exclaimed again about babies as my hand crossed her belly area.

    Followed by a few seconds of pretending to give/detact energy so not actually touching but hands
    over her belly area

    She lay on her back. I started rubbing her chest, and she purred a little.

    I then very gently stroked her belly for about 2 minutes projecting excitement about
    her new babies while she purred strongly

    Late in the evening I broke Ballerina. Played chase with my custom chaser which I can make almost
    impossible to catch. Ballerina must have jumped up and down to the sofa 100 times as well as
    running and turning none stop.

    She lay down panting like a dog, and I thought I better give her a breather.
    I’d never seen a cat panting before.

  • Kevin

    Our cat has a cat friend (I think, but I’m not sure) that comes to our house and leads outside our front door that is solid glass from top to bottom and seems to like our cat but I am afraid to let our cat outside to visit with her because we have no idea what she might do because she is just a neighbor hood cat that really doesn’t have a so-called home. What do I do because I don’t want our cat outside and they’re suddenly there is an attack between the two of them it would break our heart if something happened. What do I do? Do I let them just visit each other in between the glass of our door? I hope you have an answer for us.

  • Michelle Knowles

    Dublin, my cat, loves belly rubs. Of course they have to be given in a certain mood, & I’ve learned when I can or cannot give him belly rubs. They also have to be gentle strokes, right when he’s in the calmest of moods. Since he’s a really calm cat, this is most of the time. I’m thankful to have a calm cat who loves belly rubs – by me – & lap time. ❤️😻🤗❤️

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