how do cats lay when sick
Questions About Cats

Cat Sleeping Positions When Sick (and What They Mean!)

Lethargy is a common symptom of many feline illnesses. While senior cats will naturally want to rest for longer than a young adult cat, the sleeping position assumed could be a sign of sickness.

Curling in a ball or adopting the fetal position suggests that your cat is struggling to stay warm. A cat on its side may be finding it hard to breathe or be attempting to relieve pressure on aching joints. Sleeping on the back can imply feelings of vulnerability, so the cat wants quick access to its claws for self-defense.

It is hard to diagnose illness by sleeping position alone. Cats sleep in a range of poses, many of which look uncomfortable. Accompanied by the physical symptoms of illness, a cat’s sleeping position can reveal what ails it.

What Do Different Cat Sleeping Positions Mean?

Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews stated that lethargy and depression is the most common warning sign of sickness. If a cat is withdrawn and sleeping more, it could be attempting to hide pain or illness.

Monitor your cat during sleep as the position that your cat adopts can reveal a source of discomfort. Sleeping positions are a useful barometer of health when considered in conjunction with other physical symptoms.

The table below details common sleeping positions in sick cats and what they may mean:

Curled in a BallLow body temperature as this position keeps a cat warm. Significant pain is also a possible explanation.
Fetal PositionLow body temperature. The cat could also be protecting a sore or injured body part, such as the front paws.
Lying on StomachVulnerability means that your cat doesn’t want to fall into a deep sleep. It may need to move quickly.
Lying on BackFeelings of insecurity. This position offers fast access to claws and teeth for protection. Sick cats feel more vulnerable.
Lying on SideDifficulty breathing or muscular pain. This position makes breathing easier and reduces pressure on the joints.

Also, look out for other changes in your cat’s sleeping routine. If your cat always slept alone but now looks for company, it may be feeling unwell. The cat is seeking comfort and protection while it rests.

A sick cat may also sleep with one or both eyes open, implying that the cat feels vulnerable. It is unwilling to fall into a deep sleep in case it needs to react to changing circumstances.

Cat Sleeping in a Ball

Cat is Curled Up in a Ball

A cat curled up in a ball is a common sight in colder months. This position is how a cat remains cozy.

Low Body Temperature

As Science explains, cats lose heat through their eats and footpads during sleep. This position protects these extremities.

If you find your cat in this position, check the ambient temperature. Cats need a room temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit to remain comfortable. If necessary, apply more heat sources to a cat’s bed.

If a cat’s body temperature drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it is at risk of hypothermia. Do not check a cat’s temperature while it sleeps. Illnesses that lead to low body temperature in cats include:

  • Respiratory infections
  • Shock
  • Consumption of toxins
  • Heart failure

These symptoms vary from moderate to severe. Warm your cat up as they cannot sustain a body temperature below 100 degrees Fahrenheit for long. Left untreated, this can lead to fatal hypothermia.

Experiencing Pain

Cats will rarely reveal that they are in physical discomfort. Unlike other animals, cats hide in dark places to avoid detection. In the mind of a cat, pain is a sign of weakness.

This resting position is a means of relief. If your cat is sleeping curled in a tight ball and displays any of these physical traits, it is in pain:

Loud purring is another warning sign. Cats don’t just purr for pleasure; it’s also a way to self-soothe when in pain.

A cat in discomfort will often curl up in a box or similar enclosed space. The cat wants to be left alone until the pain passes. Cats feel more secure when enclosed in small, tight spaces.

Cat Sleeping in Fetal Position

cat sleeping in fetal position

This pose helps a cat to retain body heat. Check the temperature of the cat and its surroundings while it is awake.

If the cat has a safe temperature, consider whether it could be injured. The purpose of the fetal position may be to protect parts of the anatomy. In the fetal position, a cat cannot be touched on the paws or belly.

When your cat wakes up, check how well it moves. If the cat refuses to allow you to touch its paws, injury or discomfort is a possibility. This could be something minor, such as dry and cracked paw pads.

If you find no obvious physical problem, it could be feeling vulnerable due to an illness. The fetal position helps a cat feel protected. The cat feels confident that it will not be disturbed as all delicate anatomy is protected.

Cat Sleeping Flat on Stomach

Cat Lying Flat on Stomach

A cat will rarely choose to lie on its stomach when planning a deep sleep. An unwell cat may be reluctant or unable to sleep properly. There are two positions a cat will adopt while on its stomach:

  • Paws and tail tucked, head upright
  • Paws outstretched

When a cat tucks its paws and tail under its belly, it is called “the loaf.” This is common and usually not concerning. Stretching the paws and legs out is worthy of your attention. This can be worrying.

The Loaf Position

Cat Loaf Position

A cat in the loaf position is usually planning a brief nap. The cat tucks its paws and tail to keep warm. The cat will keep its head upright to remain alert. If sleep claims the cat, the head will eventually drop. This is referred to as a “collapsed loaf.”

Sick cats will rarely adopt the loaf position. If the cat has serious concerns about body temperature, it will curl up for warmth. If it is a pain, it will avoid remaining quite so conspicuous.

One exception is if a sick cat is worried about falling asleep. The cat may be concerned that it will not wake up. Equally, it wants to remain alert. It may suspect that a rival has noticed its illness and plans to take its territory.

In such instances, the cat will regularly adopt the loaf position. The cat is hoping to get enough rest through a series of micro-naps. In the mind of the cat, this negates the need for genuine sleep.

A cat that constantly adopts the loaf position should be assessed. A cat will not get enough rest using this sleeping position alone. Experimental Neurology explains how sleep deprivation leaves cats at risk of seizures.

Paws Outstretched

cat lying with paws out

A cat may also lie on its stomach with its paws outstretched. This can resemble the flying position.

If the cat’s paws are divided, it is just ensuring it can move quickly. As the paws are not tucked, the cat can quickly escape if threatened. This may suggest that the cat feels vulnerable due to sickness. It may just mean that the cat is briefly regaining energy before launching a hunt.

It has been claimed that some cats lie on their stomachs with paws together to open the lungs. This obviously suggests a breathing issue.

Cat Sleeping Flat on Back

Cat is Lying Flat on Its Back

Leaving paw pads and belly exposed does not come naturally to cats. This suggests that your cat trusts you and feels secure.

This is not always the case. Cats roll onto their back when feeling threatened or vulnerable. This provides the cat with access to all four claws, in addition to teeth. If the cat needs to protect itself, it is easier to do so.

If your cat is affectionate during the day then sleeps on its back, it is no concern. The cat is demonstrating its trust in you. As long as you do not betray this trust, you’ll be fine.

If the cat is acting off in other ways, be mindful of this sleeping position. The main warning signs are uncharacteristic aggression and prolonged periods of hiding. This suggests that the cat feels the need to be on high alert at all times.

This vulnerability may be due to a medical illness or physical pain. Arthritis is another explanation here. If sleeping on its back, a cat’s legs will be in the air. While not ideal, this is preferable to placing weight on the joints.

Cat Sleeping Flat on Side

Cat Sleeping Flat on Side

Taken alone, side-sleeping does not mean a cat is sick. Quite the opposite, in fact. It usually suggests a cat is happy and relaxed. Despite this, sick cats will often lie on their side. This resolves several ailments:

  • Breathing is easier if a cat struggles for air
  • Muscular pain is avoided as no pressure is placed on the joints
  • The exposure of soft skin regulates body temperature

Many cats will not sleep in this position if sick or unwell. This is primarily because sleeping on the side leaves a cat exposed. As established, sick cats feel vulnerable. This means the cat will avoid a defenseless pose. Look out for the following behaviors while your cat is awake, though:

  • Limping
  • Refusing to run, jump, or climb
  • Trouble climbing in or out of litter tray
  • Panting or noisy breathing
  • Deep breaths

These symptoms suggest that your cat has arthritis, breathing difficulty, or both. In such instances, the cat will sleep on its side. This opens the lungs and keeps the joints free of pressure.

Cat Sleeping with Another Cat

Cat Sleeping with Another Cat

Cats often sleep alone, even if they share a home. This is due to the territorial nature of cats. A bed, or favored hiding spot, will be claimed by a rival feline.

Exceptions to this rule may include siblings or cats that grew up together. These cats will forge a bond that is not broken in adulthood. Co-sleeping is relatively common, though.

If your cat starts sleeping with a fellow cat, watch its behavior while awake. Co-sleeping suggests that the cat is unwell. It is asking another cat to watch over it while dozing.

A cat will only do this if very unwell. The cat understands that it will relinquish all dominant status by asking another cat for help. In most instances, the cat would prefer to sleep with an owner.

Co-sleeping does occur in sick cats, though. Even felines that appear to fight all day may sleep together for the common good.

Cat Sleeping with Eyes Open

Cat Sleeping with Eyes Open

Cats appearing to sleep with one eye open is a common occurrence. Your cat is genuinely sleeping. Cats have a transparent third eyelid (nictating membrane) that closes.

The purpose of this is so a cat can stay alert. The cat’s peripheral vision will still capture potential threats. Equally, the cat can react faster upon waking up. The cat was not in a deep sleep and will thus not be groggy.

Sick cats often sleep with their eyes open. Cats with urinary infections will want to make a rapid trip to the litter box. Cats that struggle for breath will be concerned about falling asleep too deeply. Keeping the eyes open ensures the sleep never gets further than a light nap.

If your cat adopts a variety of sleeping positions, it’s likely to be fine. One sleeping position at all times can suggest that a cat is sick.