How to Avoid the Cat Belly Trap

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Cats occupy an unusual niche in nature - they are both hunter and prey. They've adapted well to both roles, but what happens when you trigger those hunting instincts? Becky S. writes:

We recently took in two semi-feral cats from the shelter, and they are awesome. The older of the two, Arlo (he is 4), loves to be petted so much. As you pet him, he throws himself down on his side or back for more love, but then he reaches for you hands as you continue to pet him, and gouges you in his effort to get you to love him more. What to do? It looks as though he is pulling your hand toward him so you will pet him more, but dang! Many hand gouges on mom and dad! I stop petting him then, but he seems confused at this. I think he confuses affection and play. How can we get him to stop “grabbing” us when we pet him?

Becky, what you're describing is what many cat lovers call the belly trap. For most cats, the exposure of their bellies is a hunting maneuver. A cat will grasp their prey in their front paws and roll over onto his or her back in order to use the rear claws to kick at the prey and kill it. So, for Arlo, it may seem that he's rolling onto his back to ask for more petting, and indeed he may be quite happy when he does so, but when you touch him in that position, your touch triggers his hunting instincts and he attacks. 

This is proper behavior for cats and not something you can change. You just need to be aware of it and avoid touching him when he rolls over like that. Some cats use this move to signal that they're becoming over-stimulated with touch and need a little break. The trick is to read his signals before they escalate. Notice his tail movement. If he's thrashing his tail back and forth, chances are he's being overstimulated and he's telling you he needs you to stop petting him for a few minutes.

Thank you for adopting! All our best wishes to you and Arlo!