If you’re like me and have got at least one cat who sometimes sleeps on his back, chances are you think it’s one of the most adorable things in the world. I really genuinely think of all the quirky cat behaviours there are, this just may be my favourite.
It’s hard to resist smiling when you see a cat laying on its back, whether it’s sprawled out and stretching like Michelangelo’s, The Creation of Adam, lying on it’s back flatly with all four paws neatly tucked in, is flat on it’s back but has paws stuck out like it’s falling from the sky, or some other ridiculous way. They’re so stinkin’ cute when they do this it’s hard to resist walking over to a cat for a little pet, and of course if your cat lets you, that oh-so-satisfying soft belly rub. I mean honestly, I don’t even think a “dog person” could resist one of these adorable moves to elicit affection, if that’s what it’s all about after all.
Picture from post Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam as Interpreted by a Cat
Obviously, we don’t know for certain. Cats have been studied quite a lot in science, but the down low on why specific behaviours that have no real importance, like lying and falling asleep on their backs, is definitely not one of those things researchers have gotten around to in depth. Sometimes you’ll see mention of cat behaviours being studied on the whole within the context of cats interacting with humans or cats interacting with other cats, or even studies of behaviours related to their prey drives, nutrition, that kind of thing – important things. But when it comes to quirky cute cat things of lesser importance, scientists rightly avoid the topic until more important research has been done first.
In the meantime, we can sit around with a coffee in hand and ponder about these behaviours, discussing them amongst ourselves. Who knows, maybe we’ll be onto something – maybe we’ll be completely off. Either way, there’s plenty to discuss and we can come up with a plethora of explanations that may turn out to be true for a slew of these behaviours, which is why I talk about them a lot on this blog. They’re interesting to wonder about, and I think make for some epic conversation starters on what-this-cat-does-versus-the-other, which I love. I love hearing stories about how an individual cat’s personality shines through with one behaviour or another that’s slightly off from all the others you’ve met. They’re obviously not people, but honestly the amount of personality cats have sometimes, it feels they can’t be all that far off.
Back into the point of this article, however: why cats sometimes sleep on their back. I don’t think there are studies that say for certain (let me know if you find anything relevant!), but I’ve done my best to dig up theories and explanations others have come up with on the net, as well as come up with some of my own.
I’d love to hear your theories, which of those on my list you think might turn out to be true, which might turn out to be false, oh and please for the love of god – stories of your cats doing this and if you have multiple, how they differ if they all have different ways, times, or quirks about how they sleep their backs. My two cats do it differently, Avery who’s a tall short haired tabby is more or less always a sprawler, while Bjorn, who I think is half Persian, half domestic is a little more neat and flat on his back, with his paws still out. There are Persian cats who often come by our yard, and one is nearly always a neat and tidy back-sleeper, tucking in his paws the majority of the time; the other seems to roll and lie on her back as a technique exclusively for eliciting belly rubs, which are so often given to her when she does this. To be honest, all the cats I know use this technique in part for those belly rubs, for cuddles, for attention, soooo much attention is given to them when they’re sleeping like this, how can one resist?
I love reading things like that, and this being my pretty-much-favourite cat behaviour of all time, I really can’t wait to read stories you guys have in the comments. Okay, theory time.
11 Theories That Could Explain Why Some Cats Sleep on Their Back
1. It’s possible cats sleep on their back primarily because, well, it’s comfortable!
There are a plethora of positions cats sit and sleep in that look downright intolerable to us humans, but that doesn’t mean they are! Cats are quite flexible. To me it really wouldn’t be surprising to learn all those ridiculous ways they sit, stand, and sleep sometimes are actually comfortable for them. After all, if it was really uncomfortable, why would they put up with staying that way?
2. When cats sleep on their backs, it’s an incredibly vulnerable position to sleep; they only do this if they feel incredibly safe.
The fact that the belly is a vulnerable area on your cat’s body is often spoken about in vet-written articles around the web (like this one). If a cat’s exposing one of his or her most vulnerable areas to you while literally being completely inattentive to the point where he or she is asleep, obviously while knowing that you’re present, there’s no doubt this cat feels incredibly safe around you.
3. Since cats only ever sleep on their backs when they feel completely safe, doing this in front of you means they trust you.
Whether cats are using this position to communicate trust to you is debatable (I don’t think cats think about their behaviours this way), but regardless of the intention of the cat, the act does communicate an underlying trust.
4. They may also be using the sleep position to get attention from humans.
Tell me, do you know of a single person who could possibly resist paying at least a little attention to a cat lying or sleeping on it’s back? I feel like even people who don’t like cats would still glance over at a cat lying on it’s back asleep. Maybe even smile?
Cats do like attention, and while some need it more than others, even cats who don’t necessarily want to be pet or stroked still like to have attention, company, and “passive” sorts of interaction a lot of times. Speaking of petting…
5. Another reason that has to do with humans: cats may sometimes sleep on their backs to lure humans into petting them & giving belly rubs.
Again, who can resist? Especially if you know yours is the type of cat who likes a gentle stroke on the belly when he or she’s on his or her back for a nap, it’s honestly one of the most warm, happy feelings I get, and I’m sure the same is true for you.
Since they’re so vulnerable in that position, if they also let you stroke their extremely sensitive, vulnerable belly, well is there a higher complement that could possibly be given to a human?
Three cats I know do this because often after sleeping for some time in this position, they’ll give a little meow, as if to say, “What are you waiting for, pet me?” – and if I don’t come over and give them a cuddle, they’ll wait a while and mew again. If I pet them, they purr and roll, or just stay in the same position, comfortably enjoying belly and chest rubs.
I do find that sometimes cats in this position prefer chest and head pets, but either way – it’s definitely petting the ones I know want if they sleep on their backs and start with a meow, or meow after some time to point out my lack of affection.
6. Kittens need their moms to help them eliminate waste & often sleep on their backs to make this easier; the habit may therefore be left over from kittenhood.
Cats can’t go to the bathroom on their own. They need their mothers to lick their rear ends to stimulate them to pee and poop, and obviously while this happens, the mother licks clean any excrement like she would if she had a bit leftover on herself after going to the bathroom.
An answer on Quora points out quite well how this might relate back to cats sleeping on their backs:
Kittens evolutionarily require their parent’s help to eliminate waste. So that the kittening den will not attract predators, the mother cat eats the feces and laps up their urine for the first few weeks of life. Felines cannot “go” until mom’s raspy tongue is stimulating the potty areas (usually right after feeding). Best-case, mom starts licking and the kitten gets rolled onto their back, belly up. However since this can be 6-12 times a day, every day, chances are their head, body or some limb can be accidentally pinned under a sibling or pushed against some part of the den. This doesn’t injure the kitten but is not always physically comfortable.
So one of the first life hacks a kitten discovers is they can preemptively lay on their back, in a non-physically awkward position, and get this need taken care of. Better yet, they can even go to sleep on their backs after the meal so that way if mom was still feeding other siblings or helping siblings eliminate, they are already in a perfect position to only wake up enough to relieve themselves. Outside of mealtimes, they will cry to get mom’s attention and they will flip themselves over on their backs and mom helps them.
To reduce discomfort when mommy flips them over to help them go to the bathroom, therefore, a lot of kittens seem to learn to sleep on their back, which also would mean they’d spend a lot less time being flipped and bothered while sleeping, and a lot more time resting instead. They then seem to learn to flip themselves over on their backs whenever they need to go to the bathroom, to communicate to mom they need help going to the bathroom.
As a result, cats may have gotten into the habit of sleeping on their backs from back when they were little kittens, then never got completely out of the habit. Part of which may be because…
7. Kittens who no longer need mom’s help to eliminate will be groomed when they sleep on their backs; cats sleeping like that may be asking you to groom them.
A different excerpt from the same Quora post explains how moms deal with cats who are old enough to no longer need stimulation to help them go to the bathroom:
Those kittens, when at the stage of using a litter box ( 4–6 weeks old) and no longer needing stimulation help to eliminate, would love to continue the ritual. […]
At this stage, Mom cat essentially does what I do, Often just licking their face and chest. She no longer will lick the potty area and just make it about grooming.
Older cats, that got the _full_ transitioning (completed mostly at 5–6 weeks old) can most likely use this language to ask to be touched/groomed/petted. Whatever laying on their backs would get them as kittens.
Thus, after the mamma cat knows her kitten is fully able to go to the bathroom and clean him or herself, when a kitten rolls over on his or her back, she will lick their face and chest instead of helping them with the washroom. These types of kittens, who are weaned past this point and fully transitioned, likely have a new understanding of what it means to be on their back – that they want grooming, which the closest equivalent we humans do is probably petting them.
8. Because kittens turn over & sleep on their backs mostly for their moms, this cat behaviour may suggest you’re like a mother to your feline.
This is obviously just a guess, but I think it’s a reasonable one. If the vast majority of instances cats turn over on their back and sleep is in the presence of mom or specifically for the purpose of having their moms groom them, it makes sense that a cat who does this around you or even for you to pet them thinks at least a little of you like you’re a parent.
9. There are health benefits to humans sleeping on their backs, maybe there are some for cats as well.
There are certain situations in which you probably shouldn’t sleep on your back (such as if you have sleep apnea), but for most people, sleeping on your back has a lot of positive advantages to your health. As Healthline states, for humans, sleeping on your back:
- keeps your spine aligned
- reduces tension headaches
- helps chronic conditions by reducing pressure and compression
- relieves sinus buildup
It wouldn’t be surprising to learn cats also have health benefits if they sleep on their backs, which may be why some of them evolved to like doing so.
10. Sleeping on one’s back is a preference for a lot of humans; maybe some cats simply prefer that sleep position as well.
There are some people who just can’t sleep on their sides, on their backs, or on their chests. There are others who sleep exclusively in one position over all others, and can’t fall asleep any other way. While cats don’t always sleep on their backs, they do so frequently enough that it would make sense to me at least that they have a preference for this sleep position and so sometimes prefer to be sleeping in it, just the same way I like to sleep on my back nearly all the time, but some days, I just want to sleep on my side for the night.
11. If in the sun: cats may sleep on their backs to warm their bellies & maximize surface area sun rays hit.
Not much cats love more than lying and sleeping in the sun. To be honest, I can’t blame them, I quite like sitting in the sun myself, whether it’s hot or cold outside. There’s something about soaking up those rays and vitamin D that’s just plain nice.
Why not gather as much as you can when you’re sunbathing as a feline? Maybe a cat’s sleeping on his or her back in part to help soak up those rays to heat their bellies or to maximize the surface area on their body that’s sitting in the sun. One of my cats sure likes sleeping on his backs more often when he’s been hanging out in a sun spot on the ground and decides to switch positions before extending his nap. What about yours?
12. Cats may be sleeping on their backs just because they can.
Sometimes humans do things just to use their free will – because they can and to exercise that freedom of choice. It may not be true of animals, or of cats, but it’s possible that it’s true of them, too.
Your Thoughts on Cats Sleeping on Their Backs?
Why do you think cats sleep on their backs? Can you think of other theories? Which of the ones I listed do you think are more likely to be true; more likely to be false?
If you have multiple cats, why do you think each of them sleep on their backs, and do they seem to do it for the same reasons, or for different reasons? Do your cats like to be pet when they sleep like this? Do they prefer to be left alone?
I’d love to hear any stories, experiences, thoughts, and opinions you have on this topic in the comments down below.