Cat Tummy Trouble. Why You Shouldn’t Hold Kitty Upside Down


Many cat owners like to hold their cats on their backs, cradling them like babies. While this may seem harmless, studies show that this position can actually cause cats a great deal of distress. When held on their backs, cats feel vulnerable and anxious. Their natural instincts tell them they are in danger in this upside down position. Cats held this way may react negatively, potentially scratching or biting their owners. While some cats tolerate this briefly, most do not enjoy being held on their backs. There are better and safer ways to hold a cat that do not make them feel scared or threatened.

Cats Feel Vulnerable on Their Backs

When a cat is placed on its back, it activates the fight-or-flight response due to feeling exposed and vulnerable. This position allows access to a cat’s belly and vital organs, which goes against a cat’s natural instinct to protect these areas (Why Do Cats Arch Their Backs? 8 Reasons Explained). Cats have a strong predatory drive, so exposing their stomach triggers their instinct to defend against potential attacks. Being on their backs inhibits a cat’s ability to right itself and react quickly.

The belly of a cat contains vital organs like the stomach, intestines, liver, and kidneys. When placed on their backs, cats can feel threatened that these sensitive areas are exposed and unprotected. This vulnerability activates the sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones like epinephrine that prepare the cat’s body for defense (Why do cats raise their back when facing a threat?). The belly is one of a cat’s most sensitive areas, so they feel a loss of control when it is accessible to potential harm.

Signs of Distress

When held on their backs, cats will often display signs of distress and agitation. Some of the key signs to look out for include aggressive behavior such as hissing, swatting, biting, and scratching. Cats may also vocalize their distress through growling, yowling, and other loud noises (Source 1). Another telltale sign is dilated pupils – when cats feel threatened, their pupils will rapidly dilate. This is an instinctual response as widened pupils allow more light in, giving cats a better chance of spotting threats. Other signs can include ears flattening back against the head, attempts to wriggle and break free, and tense body language (Source 2). Observing your cat’s body language and vocalizations will allow you to identify their distress promptly.

Scratching and Biting

Many cats react defensively and scratch or bite when held on their backs because they feel vulnerable in that position ( The cat’s instinct is to protect itself, so it turns and bites or scratches aggressively as a way to say “stop” or “let me go” ( This reaction can be quite damaging for the human holder, causing painful scratches, bite marks, and potential infections.

Cats have sharp claws and teeth that can easily pierce skin when used for defense. Even playful nips and swats from a cat can cause injuries, so serious biting and scratching when a cat is distressed can be far more damaging. Wounds from cats’ bites are prone to infection since their teeth puncture deeply and carry bacteria. Defensive bites and scratches inflicted on a human when a cat is held against their will are both painful and pose a health risk that should be avoided.

Lack of Trust

Forcing a cat into an uncomfortable position like holding them on their back against their will can seriously damage the bond between cat and human. Cats rely heavily on trust in their relationships with humans, and this betrayal of trust can be very harmful (source). When a human ignores a cat’s distress signals and handles them in ways they don’t like, it erodes the cat’s trust. The cat will become wary and lose confidence in their human (source).

Cats who have had their trust broken can become fearful and stressed. They may hide more often and avoid interacting with the human. Regaining a cat’s trust after forcing them into uncomfortable handling takes time and patience. The human must slowly rebuild confidence by respecting the cat’s signals, providing positive reinforcement, and always handling them in a gentle manner that makes them feel safe.

When It’s Okay

While unnecessarily scruffing a cat can cause anxiety or distress, there are some situations where briefly holding a cat in this position is acceptable:

  • Veterinary exams – Vets may need to briefly scruff a cat to examine them or give vaccines. This immobilizes the cat and allows for a quick exam. However, vets try to handle cats in the least stressful way possible.
  • Grooming – When trimming a cat’s nails or giving a sanitary trim, a groomer may need to scruff a cat for a few seconds to keep them still and safe. This should only be done as needed.
  • Brief interactions – If a cat is being aggressive during a vet visit or grooming session, a brief scruff may be used to interrupt the behavior and get the cat’s attention. This is a last resort and should not be common.

In these situations, scruffing should only be done for the minimum time necessary, while supporting the cat’s body weight. The goal is to keep the cat calm and safe, not to assert dominance. Vets and groomers are trained to properly and humanely scruff cats when absolutely required.

Better Ways to Hold a Cat

There are some better techniques for holding a cat that help them feel more secure and avoid distress. Here are a few methods to try:

Supporting the Hindquarters: Place one hand under the cat’s hindquarters to support their weight. Let them step or jump up into your arms instead of picking them up. This gives them more control. [1]

Forearm Cradling: Cradle the cat’s upper body along your forearm, scooping under their hindquarters with your other hand. Keep them facing outward, not pressed against your chest. This keeps them stabilized while allowing an escape route if desired.

Lap Holding: The most secure way for many cats is a lap hold, either facing you or facing outward. Let them step onto your lap instead of grabbing them. Keep one hand loosely across their chest and elevate their hindquarters slightly with your forearm.

Creating Positive Associations

To get your cat used to being held on their back, it’s important to pair this position with positive rewards and go at your cat’s pace without forcing them. Start by giving your cat treats or petting them while they are sitting or lying down naturally. Slowly progress to gently placing one hand on their chest for just a few seconds while continuing to reward them. Over multiple sessions, work up to fully supporting their back and hindquarters for longer periods, but immediately put them down if they show any sign of distress. The key is to make the experience rewarding and build up your cat’s comfort level gradually so they come to associate being on their back with good things happening.

As explained on How to Teach Your Cat to Enjoy Being Held, this type of positive reinforcement training can teach your cat not just to tolerate but to enjoy being held. Just remember to let your cat set the pace and don’t force any positions they aren’t ready for yet. With time and patience, you can change your cat’s perspective so that laying on their back feels safe and comfortable.

Risks of Forcing the Position

Forcing a cat onto its back against its will can be traumatic and trigger aggression. Cats often feel vulnerable and threatened when placed on their backs, which goes against their natural instincts. According to Experts reveal 13 things you should never do to your cat, scruffing or holding a cat in this position creates a negative experience that can damage trust. Cats may resort to scratching, biting, hissing, growling, or other aggressive behaviors when frightened in this way. The distress caused by restraining them on their back can lead to lasting behavioral issues or trauma.

As prey animals, cats feel safest when they are in control and able to flee if needed. Forcing them into an exposed position triggers their fight-or-flight response. According to Scruffing a Cat: Risks & Safety Advice, repeatedly scruffing a cat against their will often worsens aggressive reactions over time. It’s best to avoid triggering that instinctual fear response unless absolutely necessary for medical treatment or safety reasons.


In summary, there are significant reasons why cats shouldn’t be held on their backs against their will. When a cat is flipped onto its back, it often feels vulnerable and unable to defend itself. The cat may exhibit signs of distress like growling, squirming, scratching or biting. Forcing this position can damage the bond of trust between cat and human. While there are rare exceptions, such as medical examinations, it’s generally better to interact with cats in ways that make them feel safe and calm. Creating positive associations through rewards and affection is key. Overall, flipping or holding a cat on its back against its wishes risks hurting the cat-human relationship. It’s best to handle cats gently and allow them to be in control of their own bodies.

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