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Why Cats Turn Around Before Lying Down

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Behavior, Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Why do cats turn around before lying down?

Cats, unlike humans, rarely just plop down in bed. They spend a lot of time preparing their bed before snuggling in for the night. Sleepy cats turn around in circles and do a kind of a dance before going to sleep. This bedtime ritual is a bit compulsive and sleep evades them until they complete their nightly dance routine

Why do cats sleep so much?

Cats have a reputation for enjoying a good snooze. Our feline friends are focused on sleep, so they repeat this bedding ritual frequently. They circle round and round before lying down for a good nap. And cats are really good nappers, sleeping from 12 to 16 hours a day. And not just old, tired cats sleep a lot. Even young, healthy cats sleep for two-thirds of the day. Time in bed may be affected occasionally by the weather, hunger pangs, cramped muscles, or an ailing joint, but regardless of these interruptions, cats love to sleep.

"Domestic cats may not hunt, but their sleep-centered lifestyle
has not changed much over the generations."

The feline tendency to sleep is inherited from generations of ancestors. When living in the wild, a cat’s survival depended on her ability to hunt. If the hunt was successful, the cat slept for a long time after a filling meal, much as humans take a nap after eating loads of Thanksgiving turkey. If the hunt was unsuccessful, wild cats would conserve much needed energy by snoozing. So, naps were important either way. Domestic cats may not hunt, but their sleep-centered lifestyle has not changed much over the generations.

Do cats circle before sleep for survival?

There are many possible explanations for the circling ritual cats perform prior to lying down for a nap. One theory is that cats circle around and tightly coil their bodies to conserve body heat. Cats in the wild could not control the climate by turning the thermostat up, so when the weather was cold, they wound their bodies into tight balls to stay warm. The tighter the tuck, the warmer the cat. In addition, other family members gathered together in a tight circle to effectively share body heat by compacting their bodies together.

Likewise, wild cats in hotter climates could not turn the thermostat down, so to make a cooler bed they scratched at the ground to clear away topsoil and grass that retained and radiated the sun’s warmth. Removing the topsoil and grass exposed the cooler soil underneath and gave the sleepy cat some relief from the heat. So, in cold or hot climates, cats optimized a biological reason for turning around before bedding down.

Cats in the wild were constantly on guard for predators. They positioned themselves in the most advantageous manner to keep a close watch on their environment. They circled until they positioned themselves according to wind patterns that would allow them to quickly pick up on the scent of an intruder. Cats traveled in packs, so they placed alpha cats on the outside of a family circle protecting the young and aged.

"Cats effectively created a safe place to sleep by circling and making a bed."

This “nesting” procedure also uncovered unwanted inhabitants such as deadly snakes or insects. Moreover, changing the layout of an area by moving grass or leaves indicated to other wild cats in the area that this particular spot was taken for the night and decreased fighting over territory. Cats effectively created a safe place to sleep by circling and making a bed.

 

Does circling help cats get comfortable?

Cats in the wild did not have the luxury of manufactured beds and pillows. They made their own “beds” in nature. To make their sleeping quarters more comfortable, cats would pat down tall grass and move prickly underbrush and stickers before lying down. They would root out rocks and fallen twigs. One way to clear a good sleeping spot was to turn around several times to remove debris or tamp down grass.

 

What does a pet cat's sleep preparation ritual look like?

Even though our domestic cats usually live indoors and no longer have to worry about predators or inclement weather, they still perform the sleeping ritual of their ancestors. Cat lovers may consider this bedtime routine highly amusing.

House cats will often begin the nesting procedure by slowly walking around in a tight circle. Some cats knead the rug, bed, or sofa as they march around. Kneading is an activity performed by kittens while nursing to communicate with their mother and to increase milk flow. Kneading is sign of security and soothes adult cats as well kittens, so it is often included in the bedtime ritual.

What if the circling becomes excessive?

While watching our cats turn around before bedding down is amusing, it can also be a signal that something is wrong. Cats that are in pain will circle excessively as they struggle to find a more comfortable position. They may also crouch and rise several times before completely reclining.

If your cat has difficulty settling down even after making several revolutions, consult your veterinarian. Orthopedic disorders like arthritis and neurological disorders, such as spinal cord or back problems, can turn the routine nighttime circling into a painful experience. With proper evaluation and therapy, bedtime can once again become a comforting and comfortable ritual.

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