Cat Psychology: The Social Roll Explained

Anyone around a cat long enough encounters a behavior known as the social roll. A cat does the social roll when he walks in front of you and drops his head down to the floor. Many times, when cats perform the social roll, they do it on your shoes or feet, exposing that cute belly at the same time.

Cat Social Roll: The Reason Explained

Your cat performs the social roll to express happiness and affection. He’s happy to see you. This friendly and non-aggressive stance shows that your cat feels comfortable in your presence.

They call it a social roll because the cat performs this as a social greeting.

You don’t see them perform the social roll alone—not in the same context. Cats roll in the dirt (I wrote about that here), but the reasons differ greatly from a social roll.

If you’d like to see what a social roll looks like, I’ve posted it below:

Cats only perform the social roll when they feel comfortable. They do this to invite interaction, and it shows that they thinks of the home as safe. A social roll also happens to grab your attention.

Social Roll and the Cat’s Belly

You may feel deeply tempted as your cat exposes that ultra-cute belly to rub it. Be aware that most cats don’t do this as an invitation to rub their belly.

Hair follicles on the belly and tail can overstimulate your cat. Cats love it when you scratch their chin, cheeks and head, however.

The other reason that cats dislike having their belly rubbed comes from how they have vital organs just millimeters under the skin. Damage to any of the organs could prove fatal. Instinct tells them not to let someone rub their belly.

Expert Tip: Think of the information above as a general rule, rather than the gospel. Like humans, every cat has his own personality. What annoys one cat may not annoy the next. A cat that swipes at you is a defensive response. Take that as a sign.

Sign of Trust

Cats that perform the social roll show that they trust you. They put themselves in a vulnerable position in exposing the belly. This means that they think of you as a friend. In some cases, your cat may roll on his back because he wants to play. You have to learn how to read your cat’s body language.

What happens when a cat swipes at you after a social roll?

In some cases, when you go to pet the belly of your cat, he may take a swipe at you. Rarely will a cat use full force. This shows that he has mixed feelings about you rubbing his belly. In the past, someone may have handled him roughly.

While he may invite you to pet him at first, he may change his mind halfway through. This attack shows you that he will use full force if he needs to, but he doesn’t want to.

Some cats let you pet their belly if you do it from the side. Pay close attention to how they react, however.

Beware of the Social Roll

A real concern with cats and the social roll is that they may plop down right in front of you while walking. You must exercise caution not to trip over them. The CDC estimates that 86,629 fall injuries happen over cats and dogs every year.

Especially beware of the cat when carrying groceries, having your hands full or on the stairs.

Reason Differs for Each Cat

While we can speak broadly about the reasons cats perform the social roll, each cat will have its own nuances due to personality. For example, one cat may do this because he wants you to scratch his head. The next cat does it to grab your attention. Others do it to invite you to pet them.

Showing Affection with the Social Roll

The biggest reason that cats do this is to show affection for the person that they do it for. Cats have several ways to show affection, and this is one of them.

Some of the other ways that a cat shows affection include:

  • Purring
  • Trills
  • Chirps
  • Curling in lap
  • Curls up in bed
  • Mutual grooming
  • Slow blinking

Cats have many ways to show affection, and it also depends on your cat.

Marking Territory Behavior

A large part of cat communication happens through their sense of smell. Social rolls may help cats to spread their scent. Cats have scent glands in their paws, cheeks and flanks. As your cat puts his head on the floor, it spreads his scent to tell other cats that he claims it.

Cats feel an instinctive urge to mark their territory.

Cat Psychology Differs from Dogs

Dogs that roll on their back and expose their belly take a submissive role, but you shouldn’t think of the cat’s social roll as an act of submission. Cats do this for entirely different reasons to dogs. Usually, it has something to do with them wanting attention.

People shouldn’t equate dog behavior to cat behavior. The two differ greatly. Taking your knowledge of dogs and applying it to cats can lead to a claw full—literally!

Female Cats in Heat

Female cats may do what appears to be a social roll, but they’re in heat instead. Researchers found how they mostly do this for male cats, and it’s not a social roll in these cases. You can spot a female cat in heat if they exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Excessive vocalization
  • Extra affectionate
  • Overdoing the grooming
  • Doing a low crawl
  • Loss of appetite

When your female cat goes into heat, exercise caution around doors that connect to the outside. Female cats often feel an instinctive urge to escape during this time. The cat could run away for a day or up to a week. Be wary of all weak points in the home where she can escape and distract her with play from nature’s calling.

The Cat Feels Ill

In most cases, the social roll is a benign cat behavior that shows he feels comfortable. You should be careful not to mistake illness for a social roll, however. He may do what looks like a social roll, but he has an illness.

A few different illnesses can cause this, such as cerebellar hypoplasia. This can negatively impact his balance. Another cause of it may be ataxia. The cat will struggle to stand and may appear to roll if he has ataxia. An inner ear infection can cause this condition.

When Do Cats Perform the Social Roll

Understanding when cats perform the social roll can help you with context.

Some of the times when a cat may do the social roll includes:

  • To say hello to cats and humans
  • When they want to play
  • After a female cat mates
  • Females in front of male suitors
  • When the cat feels good
  • When he feels comfortable and safe

How to Respond to the Social Roll

To respond to the social roll according to cat protocol, put your hand out and let him sniff it. Think of this as the cat equivalent to a handshake. The cat may smell it. After he does this, stroke his head gently.

Learn what your cat prefers in these circumstances. Each cat has its own personality. Even the greeting distance can differ depending on the cat.

Catnip and Your Cat

Some cats roll over in response to catnip. If you’d like to see your cat’s reaction to catnip, you can buy some here. You might have a scratching post with it or a new toy, which can explain his rolling.

Catnip appears to activate the neural elements of play, sexual behavior and aggression within the cat’s brain. Most respond with a variety of behavior—including rolling.

Some of the other behaviors your cat may display on catnip include rubbing, flipping and zoning out. Funnily enough, you may hear your cat meow and growl at the same time. This is the only recreational drug that routinely gets given to animals.

What Surface Did He Perform the Social Roll?

The other thing to consider is the surface he performed the social roll on. Why he performed it may differ depending on the surface. What looks like a social roll may be something else.

To give you an example, when cats roll in the dirt on a hot day, they’re most likely cooling off. They’re not doing this to gain attention from you. On tile, they may perform the same thing to feel the coolness on their back. It’s less of a social roll and more to cool off.

Interesting Fact: Cats have a higher body temperature that ranges from 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rolling on carpet, your cat may feel happy or excited. He may be more likely to perform the social roll here. Rolling on concrete, your cat may be doing this to scratch an itch. The uneven and rough surface makes it perfect for itching yourself. Especially as a cat when you can’t itch yourself, so you use rolling.

Invitation to Play

I mentioned this before, but I will go more in depth here. Your cat may do the social roll because he wants to you to play with him. Many cats will seem less serious when this is their intention. You can almost feel when they want to play.

Pay special attention if he seems to keep rolling in a vigorous way. That’s one of the signs. Cats have many ways of telling people that they want to play.

Think of it this way: Cat play is hunting behavior in a less serious way. If kitty seems to be stalking you, this may be a sign that he wants to play.

If your cat does the social roll as an invitation to play, bring a toy extra close and start playing with him. You can tell right away because of his responsiveness to it.

Did It Work in the Past?

If you’ve seen your cat continually do this, he may be doing it because it worked in the past. He gets what he wants out of you. The most common reason that cats do this is that they want attention. If every time they do this, they receive the love and attention from it, they will continue to perform the social roll.

Why do cats roll on their back when they see you? When a cat rolls on its back upon first seeing you, this is called a social roll. They do this to get your attention for one reason or another. Usually, they want a head-scratching or to play when doing this. While it may feel tempting, don’t rub their belly when they perform the social roll.

Why do cats roll on the floor when they see you? A cat may roll on the floor when it first sees you as a form of greeting. He usually wants attention when he does this. Your cat feels comfortable. Usually, they expose their belly in an act of vulnerability to express friendship.

Why do cats flop in front of you? It may seem funny, but cats flop down in front of you when they feel comfortable. You will never see a cat do this unless they feel comfortable around you. The act expresses vulnerability and trust.

Why do cats roll over and show their belly? Think of cats exposing their belly as an act of friendship. Cats never do this unless they feel comfortable and at peace with you. While it may feel tempting to rub their belly, you should refrain from it. Cats have sensitive hair follicles on their belly that can be overstimulated easily.


Most commonly, cats perform the social roll as a gesture of friendship. You will never see a cat do this when stressed. Understanding the reason why your cat does this can help you to give him more of what he wants.

Also, you can avoid the common pitfalls, such as rubbing the belly. Almost everyone feels tempted by that big cute cat belly at one point or another, but it would be wise to resist the bear trap. It depends on the cat, but most cats don’t like having their belly rubbed.

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