cat sleeping on back stretched out
Behavioral Problems

Why Do Cats Sleep on Their Backs?

A cat lying on its back exposes its soft, delicate underbelly. Offering a cat a tummy rub will usually end with scratches and bites. Despite this, cats sometimes doze on their backs when they’re feeling particularly relaxed.

If your cat sleeps on its back, it feels at ease. Cats sometimes sleep on their back for comfort, relieving pressure on their legs and tummy. Your cat may be sleeping on its back to regulate temperature.

If your cat is sleeping on its back, the explanation usually revolves around comfort. Cats rarely sleep in this position unless they feel safe and secure.

My Cat Always Sleeps on its Back

Learn why your cat seems to prefer this position as it will tell you a lot about how your cat is feeling. Here are the potential explanations.

1/ Trust and Contentment

Most cats will guard their belly and paw pads against any potential exposure. A cat’s stomach is as soft as tissue paper. It takes time and effort for a cat to deem a home secure. If your cat publicly sleeps this way, you have created a welcoming, safe environment.

Before you pat yourself on the back too much, this is also a test. Your cat is showing you that it trusts you. You must now prove that this trust was not misplaced. This means not touching the cat’s belly. The behavior is similar to a cat rolling over when it sees you.

A cat’s tummy can look irresistible. The same can said about its paw pads. Even if your cat enjoys tummy tickles, do not attempt this while it sleeps. You will rouse the cat, and likely anger it in the process.

If your cat is contentedly sleeping on its back, leave it alone. This may be inconvenient if the cat is on your favorite chair. It is advisable to sit elsewhere until the cat wakes up.

2/ Defensive Posture

Some cats sleep on their backs to protect themselves. When a cat is on its back, it has easy access to all four claws. If the cat feels threatened, it can quickly attack.

If a cat is feeling insecure or defensive, it will usually spend its days hiding. This includes while sleeping. The cat will find itself a small, quiet enclosed space for a nap. Any kind of disturbance will result in physical admonishment.

Disturbances are not limited to physical interaction. A sleeping cat is easily startled by a noise. A cat on its back will immediately react to such stimulation. If a sleeping cat is woken suddenly, it will be groggy and cranky. If you are in the vicinity, you will likely be clawed. 

3/ Physical Comfort

Cats sometimes sleep on their backs for physical comfort. Once a cat feels safe enough to do so, this is arguably the most relaxing position.

In addition, a cat sleeping on its back may simply be managing physical pain. Various symptoms, especially those connected with the aging process, are minimized by sleeping on the back.

cat lying on back with legs up

Musculoskeletal Issues

If a cat is on its back, it is not placing pressure on its legs. This is particularly important to senior cats with arthritis. The more a cat uses its joints while awake, the more pain it will experience. By sleeping on its back, the limbs are given some welcome respite.

Make an arthritic cat’s bed as comfortable as possible to accommodate this desire. Ensure the bed has a low side, and plenty of space to roll over. Plenty of cushions are also essential. If you can provide a memory foam base, so much the better.

It’s not just limbs that can suffer through arthritis. The Journal of Morphology explains how a cat’s spine also endures plenty of movement. Cats have flexible spines, but there is a limit to how much they can take. A memory foam cushion will soothe and realign a cat’s spinal cord.

Relieving Headaches

Cats can experience headaches. A feline headache is often a secondary concern, acting as a symptom of a different ailment.

Cats have learned that sleeping on their back will relieve tension headaches. This keeps the spine straight and encourages blood flow to the head. This will provide some relief to the cat. A cat with a headache can be grumpy, so this is a relief for all concerned.

Improving Breathing Quality

Sleeping on its back also helps a cat to breathe easier. This is important if a cat has an upper respiratory infection. These are the equivalent of a feline cold. Your cat’s nose will potentially be blocked, making breathing labored.

Some senior cats will breathe heavily while at rest, even if otherwise healthy. This is because older cats are easily exhausted. While not a medical emergency, this is something to be mindful of. Leave the cat to sleep in peace. It will be the easiest way to regain breath.

Stomach and Gastric Illness

If your cat is experiencing pain in its stomach, sleeping on the back will provide respite. A cat with gastritis, for example, will experience stomach pain. Similarly, a cat with an intestinal blockage will be in discomfort.

By sleeping on its back, the cat will avoid placing pressure on its stomach. This will help the cat to sleep. The cause of the issue must still be resolved if serious, though. Simply sleeping on the back will not cure your cat.

It’s also possible that your cat simply has gas though eating too quickly. This will be a transient problem. Cats pass wind more regularly than you realize. The cat may just be lying on its back until the sensation passes.

Do not overlook the possibility that your cat ate too much. Cats are generally good at moderating their intake. Some cats are more gluttonous than others. If your cat adopts this position after a big meal, ensure it does not vomit. Try to ease the cat onto its side.

4/ Temperature Regulation

Heat enters and leaves a cat’s body through its ears and its paw pads. By sleeping on its back, the cat will leave these paw pads exposed.

A cat is comfortable when its body temperature ranges between 100.5-102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. As Science explains, this body temperature drops while a cat is sleeping. The cat will choose a sleeping position that accommodates this.

Hot Temperatures

If a cat is overheating, sleeping on its back is the most comfortable position possible. Cats sweat through their paw pads. By leaving the paws uncovered, the cat will be able to release excess heat.

The cat’s belly and paw pads will also experience a welcome breeze in this position. Allow this to occur naturally. Do not apply a fan directly to your cat’s stomach or paws. This will create a draught, which cats loathe and find uncomfortable.

Cold Temperatures

If your cat is cold, it is likelier to sleep on its stomach. It may even curl into a ball. This way, the ears and paw pads can be protected and kept warm. An exception applies if the cat is sleeping next to a heat source.

The best example of this would be a window. If the sun shines on a winter’s day, the cat will enjoy basking on its rays. The sun will shine directly onto the cat’s stomach and paw pads. This is a form of direct heat source.

A cat may also sleep on its back beside a radiator or fire. This, again, is to obtain direct access to heat. If the cat is in a deep sleep, this can be dangerous. If you spot your cat sleeping in this location, attempt to minimize the heat source.

5/ Memories of Kittenhood

Some cats sleep on their backs out of habit. This is usually a throwback to their kitten years. Cats lie on their back so they can receive attention from their mothers. Some cats never grow out of this.

Feeding

Until kittens are weaned, competition for a mother’s teats is fierce. Kittens will roll onto their backs and assume a feeding position in advance. This way, they are ready to eat when their mother permits it.

Elimination

Kittens sleep on their backs because they are unable to eliminate themselves. It can take up to six weeks to train a kitten to use a litter tray. Until this point, they rely on their mother to stimulate their potty areas.

This is achieved by a mother cat licking the kitten. The tough, prickly sensation of the tongue inspires a kitten to urinate or eliminate. The mother then laps up urine or eats feces to protect the kitten.

As with feeding, there will be plenty of competition for this treatment. To avoid being caught in a scrum, kittens lie on their backs and go to sleep. The kitten can then wake up when its mother gets around to stimulating elimination. This position provides easy access.

cat exposing tummy

Maternal Bond

If you have a strong bond with your cat, it may view you as its mother. Do not be offended if this is not the case. Most cats see humans as equals, not superiors. Your cat may still view you as a primary caregiver. In these instances, it will react as though you are a maternal cat.

This does not mean you need to provide the same service as a mother. Adult cats are more than capable of attending to their own elimination needs. One exception is if the cat is constipated. If so, gently apply an unscented wet wipe to its bottom. Once it eliminates, the cat may change its sleeping position.

Requesting Grooming

Another holdover from kittenhood is a request for grooming. Just like a mother cat stimulates a kitten’s need to eliminate, she also grooms her young. Your cat may be requesting this from you. Licks to the tummy from a mother are the equivalent of petting.

Tread carefully when attempting this. Remember our previous warnings; many cats actively dislike being touched on the tummy. This is especially likely if the cat is asleep. If you rouse your cat suddenly with unwelcome attention, expect to be scratched.

You’ll have an idea of your cat’s intentions by its behavior prior to dozing off. If the cat was nuzzling into you or verbalizing, it was requesting interaction. It may have been so comfortable with petting that it fell asleep. Alternatively, it may have fallen asleep waiting for your attention.

It is best to wait for your cat to wake up before beginning any grooming. Just be on standby and prepared to offer this service. If your cat wanted to be groomed while it was dozing, it will certainly expect it upon waking.

6/ Imitation

It’s possible that your cat is sleeping on its back due to imitation. Cats love to mimic owners and other household pets. If the cat thinks you look comfortable, it will attempt to replicate the position itself.

Cats often watch their owners sleep, especially in the morning. Your cat is waiting for any signs of stirring. When it likes you are waking up, the cat will then be ready to demand food. If you are sleeping soundly lying on your back, this will not go unnoticed.

Your cat may start adopting the same position that you take. Alternatively, the cat may be imitating another feline. In a multi-cat household, your cats will eventually make friends. This means they’ll play together, eat together and even sleep together.

If one of the cats sleeps on its back, another will quickly follow suit. There may be no reason for this other than mimicry. One cat may be unwell, and the other healthy. One cat may be content and comfortable, the other a little anxious. Mimicry will make both cats happy.

7/ In Heat or Pregnancy

A female cat that suddenly starts sleeping on her back may be in heat, or pregnant.

Cats in heat emit an unmistakable scent, usually by spraying and marking. A cat will be unable to do this while sleeping. Lying on her back is the next best thing. The cat’s scent will still attract a potential mate. Cats in heat leave nothing to chance.

If the cat is pregnant, she will be aware of this, even if you are not. Pregnant cats do not start to show for several weeks. The cat will feel the change in her body. She will roll onto her back to avoid pressure on her stomach.

Pregnant cats also sleep on their back to remain vigilant against threats. These could be anybody that means to do the kittens harm, or amorous tomcats. Once a cat is pregnant, she becomes antisocial. Any male that approaches will be aggressively deterred.

Cats sleep on their backs for a wide variety of reasons. There is no need to worry about this. The cat is likely paying you a compliment. It is unlikely that a cat will sleep on its back unless it feels completely relaxed. Allow the cat to remain in this state of bliss by leaving it alone.