It’s an often-repeated tip, but not as often followed: “Never pet a cat’s tummy!” What does this mean, and why does it happen?

As you know, some cats do love to have their tummies pet, but many, many other cats are uncomfortable with this simple moment of affection from their person. This stems from the fact that while your cat is, indeed, a fierce predator, she’s also a prey animal, and allowing any creature that’s bigger than her access to her tummy, which protects all of her vital organs, can feel pretty scary for your feline friend. She very well may jump right to defensive maneuvers to avoid being touched there, and those maneuvers can look like claws or teeth going into the hand that’s petting her.

In the wild, a cat may expose their tummy to a predator to prove that they’re willing to go into battle with all defensive weapons engaged, but in your home, this is likely not the case at all. When you find your cat relaxing on the couch, on their back with all paws in the air and tummy exposed, it’s as simple as it seems. Your cat is comfortable and feels safe and relaxed enough to show you their most vulnerable parts. It isn’t, though, an invitation to jump in and rub their tummy… you very well could awaken their inner warrior and find yourself in a bit of a pickle!

Instead, let your cats remain comfortable and secure by not petting their tummies unless you know them very, very well and it’s something that you’ve worked out together with boundaries for feeling safe. Or, simply don’t pet that tummy. Stick to face, cheeks and shoulders, and let them feel confident in offering you their vulnerable parts.

By letting them make the choice and really getting to know them and their likes and dislikes, you can build a lot of trust and confidence with your cat. And remember, just because your cat at home likes a tummy rub, it’s more common for a cat to NOT be comfortable with a belly pat, so give them space until you know them better.