Cat sleeping positions when sick
Questions About Cats

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

Lethargy is a common symptom of many different feline illnesses. While senior cats will naturally want to rest for longer than a young adult cat, the sleeping position that a cat assumes 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 suggest feelings of vulnerability, so the cat wants quick access to 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 very uncomfortable. Accompanied by physical symptoms of illness, a cat’s sleeping positions can reveal what ails it.

What Do Different Cat Sleeping Positions Mean?

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 If a cat is withdrawn and sleeping more, it could be attempting to hide pain or illness.

Monitor your cat carefully during sleep. The position that your cat adopts may reveal a source of discomfort. Sleeping positions are a useful barometer of health when considered 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. 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 a cat doesn’t want to fall into a deep sleep. It wants to move quickly, or it can be a sign of illness.
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.

In addition, 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 unwell. The cat is seeking comfort and protection while it dozes.

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

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 the cat up. Cats 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 just hide. In the mind of a cat, pain is a sign of weakness.

If your cat is sleeping curled in a tight ball, look more closely. If the cat displays any of these physical traits, it is in pain. The resting position is an attempt at relieving this problem:

  • Eyes tightly closed
  • Short, shallow breaths
  • Ears pinned forward on the head

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 pain 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, watch how 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 a splinter trapped in the paw pad.

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. A cat that is unwell may be reluctant, or unable, to sleep. 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 referred to as, “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

what does cat loaf position mean?

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 pain, it will avoid remaining quite so conspicuous.

One exception to this is a sick cat worried about falling asleep. The cat may be concerned that it will not wake up. Equally, it wants to remain alert. The cat may suspect that somebody 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 the 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 biggest 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 is Lying Flat on Its 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 a number of ailments:

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

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 previously, 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, highly visible 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

two cats sleeping together

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 typically be claimed by a particular 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 considerably rarer than it is 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 swallowing pride and asking another cat to watch over it while dozing.

A cat will only do this if seriously 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, the nictating membrane, which 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 the 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 into too deep a sleep. Keeping the eyes open ensures the sleep never gets further than a light nap.

Sleep is important to cats, especially senior felines. Watch your cat’s sleeping position carefully, comparing it to the cat’s everyday behavior. As older cats spend so much time dozing, you’ll soon notice if patterns emerge.

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