The Safe Way to Pet a Cat’s Belly

Here’s the bite-free way to give your cat some tummy rubs.

By: scrapstothefuture
Keep her trust by being gentle when touching her belly. By: scrapstothefuture

Oh, that tempting belly.

If there’s anything people get indignant about, it’s the way those sneaky cats lay a trap for us with those enticing bellies. They lie right there, belly ready for rubbing.

Yet, when we move in, spang! The claws and teeth come out, and we are stuck, desperate to figure out how to rescue ourselves from this sharp-edged dilemma.

But there is a great, foolproof way to rub our cat’s belly in utter safety. To do that, we first must understand all the mistakes we are making — the ones that got us trapped in the first place.

It’s a Cat, Not a Dog

Yes, cats lie there looking cute and relaxed. We think they are begging to have their belly rubbed like a magic lamp with a reluctant genie inside. But they aren’t a Labrador Retriever puppy, and that’s not what they’re doing.

To us humans, it’s all just belly rubbing. Dogs have a different view. They show their belly as a sign of submission. In dog language, they are saying, “You are the boss,” “I am no threat to you” and “I am not plotting any kind of overthrow of your regime!”

Cats have another entirely different view. They show their belly as a sign of trust.

In cat language, they are saying, “I am able to show you my belly because I am not afraid of you. This is an eloquent signal of my ability to relax in your presence.”

We can’t treat it as we would the same body language when offered by a dog.

It’s a Signal, Not an Invitation

Now we can better understand why our offer of friendly belly rubbing gets such poor results. To our cats, they have offered a big smile and a declaration that they have enjoyed the evening. We have responded with a makeout session worthy of a pro wrestler hit with a love potion.

It’s way too much way too soon.

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It’s hard to resist such a fluffy tummy, but most cats aren’t offering theirs for pets or rubs. By: psyberartist

I have a cat, Tristan, who lies on the floor and offers his belly all the time. To his special humans, it’s a trust signal we can respond to with gentle strokes or even delicate “kisses” where we slowly blow our warm breath into his fur.

He does this to our friends, who respond properly, according to their status in his life. They stay in their chairs and coo, “What a magnificent belly. I am proud to be friends with such a belly.” They can — very gently — touch the belly with their single finger.

That’s all. That’s what the cat means and that’s what the cat wants.

Right Target, Wrong Posture

As seen with our response to Tristan’s extravagant belly displays, he never ever wants it rubbed as though we are polishing out a scratch on a new car.

If this is the first time we have seen this cat’s belly, the proper response is to hold out our finger several feet from the belly, zero in on the belly with it and pretend to stroke the belly with our fingers. Cats just love the mind game part of this and will be delighted that we are such scamps.

The person in this video seems a glutton for punishment when he keeps rubbing his cat’s belly: 

But no matter what level of this game we play with our cats, we are being respectful of their belly offerings. Is this the safe way of belly rubbing I promised? Was I fooling because this, while cat-safe and friendly and fun, isn’t really belly rubbing?

How to Rub Your Cat’s Belly — Really

The safest way to actually rub our cat’s belly is when the cat is standing up.

We still shouldn’t be fast and frantic about it. But if we really want to pet our cat’s belly, we should approach with our fist. This lets our cat know we aren’t going to grab her, and a sudden move on her part won’t get her jabbed by our stray finger.

We start with the head, work our way down the back and then run our “fist of friendship” under the cat’s belly. If she’s happy we got this far, we can open our hand and gently rub her belly while saying happy things about how great she is.

That’s how to rub a cat’s belly — with both of us enjoying the experience.

Pamela Merritt

View posts by Pamela Merritt
Pamela Merritt, of the Way of Cats website and blog, had to give up her home rescue operation, but not her decades of expertise. Now, with her writing and her podcast, In a Purrfect World, she is helping Cat Appreciators everywhere.

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