By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 July 2011)
When a cat shows you his belly, it’s often a sign of trust because he’s putting himself in a vulnerable position. A cat that rolls on his back and presents his tummy is usually saying that you’re a friend, and that your relationship is cooperative rather than competitive.
Some cats will also roll on their backs when they want to play, as it gets them into a good position to tackle a proffered hand, so it’s risky to assume that this gesture is always an invitation to a belly scratch, particularly with an unknown cat.
A cat may also have mixed feelings, wanting to trust but feeling wary, particularly if he has been handled roughly in the past. He might invite a tummy rub but then become fearful and launch a warning attack on the hand. Such attacks are not usually done at full strength. They’re a way of letting the person know that the cat wants to trust but has been mistreated in the past and is thus prepared to defend himself if the person takes advantage of his vulnerability.
Kittens that were taken away from their mothers too young and not properly socialized among other cats may also show ambivalent behaviours, alternating suddenly between apparent trust and attack. Poorly socialized kittens often lack an understanding of the appropriate level of force to use when playing as well.
Some cats also enjoy a brief tummy rub but soon warn the person off because the petting has become irritating due to static electricity, a medical problem that causes pain, or general oversensitivity.
Reference: Tabor, R. (2005). 100 Ways to Understand Your Cat. Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons why they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.