The phenomenon started shortly after Forest set foot into my home at four months of age. The little man went belly up.
I would find him lying flat on his back, sometimes his torso was slightly twisted with his front paws flopped over his chest, or his front legs were extended above his head to stretch his body. His back hips often lie flat on the floor, his bushy tail sticks straight out between his back legs, and his cottony white belly fur and pink skin are exposed for me to see.
One of my first photos of Forest shows him at eight months of age, upside-down in the middle of my bed, back feet extended onto my pillow and front paws curled over his chest.
Most cats would spring to their feet if they were topsy-turvy and a person walked near, let alone if a person tried to touch their exposed tummy. Forest, however, never flinches.
Yes, the temptation is there to stick my face into his bushy belly fur and kiss his tummy, or simply blow a zerbert on his flesh. But, I have resisted. By resisting I have earned his trust to keep lying like this when the mood strikes him.
Cat behaviorists say that a feline displaying his belly is showing you utmost trust. The tummy is one of a cat’s most vulnerable spots, according to a 2014 Catster story by Angela Lutz. Feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett says in an online article to absolutely resist touching exposed bellies of trusting kitties because it will “ruin that moment by thinking it is OK to pet her in such a vulnerable spot.”
Whether to pet or not to pet a tummy all comes down to watching a cat’s behavior. If you hear growling or hissing, or see wide eyes and a rapidly flopping tail, it’s best to leave an exposed belly alone.
Forest knows I won’t intentionally hurt him – or that anyone else in our home will. As behaviorists note, his belly display notes peace with his surroundings, and that is an honor to me.
When he assumes this position, my two other cats walk around him. My 60-pound dog steps over him. Forest doesn’t budge.
I shower him with words of love, such as, “Oh my goodness,” “You’re so cute,” or “Look at that pinky, fleshy belly.” I lightly touch a paw or his forehead, place one of my palms on his tummy or kiss his pink nose and say, “I love you.”
I started calling this position his “sea otter impersonation” because he looks like an otter floating on its back in water.
I have touched his hairless belly button and that brings no response. His white fur parts down the middle when he’s upside-down, and I have acted like I am planting seeds in soil, making a row through his fur with my fingertip, gently poking in seeds and then covering them with fur.
I have provided him with cat beds and sometimes covered him up with a blanket, but Forest ignores the offerings or moves away from the covers. He prefers resting on clean laundry on my bed, or beside my pillow, but primarily he selects being upside-down in the open.
To this day, as Forest just turned nine, I still find him belly up in busy hallways, the bedroom, kitchen, on the bathroom rug, across doorways, in the bathtub, behind doors, beside my pillow, and sometimes inverted with his side against a wall.
He is so submissive and carefree about his lounging that I have to be careful how I move. He has flopped down within inches of my feet while I am washing dishes or standing at the bathroom sink. After stepping on his toes and tail more than once, I now ritualistically look around my feet before I move.
Since Forest warms up to strangers rather quickly, I also have to watch around their feet. He will randomly drop and flop over to show his belly to them, which has led to a few near-misses between feet and feline.
I find myself studying Forest’s behavior and wonder if he strategically plans these locations and times to roll over onto his back. Is it easier to see flying insects that gather around illuminated lamps or ceiling lights? Is this position more supportive of his back? Maybe his belly fur acts as feelers, like antennae on an insect detecting movement of air or temperature?
One evening I found him form-fitted to a corner in my bedroom. I posted an image to Facebook and received a response, “Feng shui kitty is testing the flow of chi.”
I decided to join Forest on the floor and take images with my camera of his view upward. The perspective so far has been enlightening – showing me the world from a smaller level.
These ongoing images along with those of Forest upside-down over the years I have placed in his very own Facebook page called Forest – Belly Up. Through these images, perhaps he will teach us superior insight about finding serenity, expressing trust, viewing life from a different perspective, and following the flow of chi.
Does your cat show you his belly often and otherwise spend time on his back? Share your photos and stories in the comments.
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About the author: Tracy Ahrens is a veteran journalist, author, artist and mom to three rescued cats and one dog. See her web site at www.tracyahrens.weebly.com and add her children’s book, “Sammy Sparrow’s First Flight,” to your collection. All proceeds help 9 humane organizations.