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Why Do Cats Circle Before Lying Down?

Dogs are well-known for circling several times in their beds before lying down. People who own them will know that cats do this too.

It’s intriguing to watch a cat spiraling on the spot on a variety of surfaces – including our laps – before they settle down to sleep.

They have many habits driven by instinct and turning in circles is one of them. Why do they do this before lying down?

Our pet cats’ wild ancestors circled before lying down to pick the best direction to watch for predators. Circling enabled them to pick up scents and ensure they were facing the direction of their source. Today, pet cats circle before they lie down out of instinct rather than fear of enemies.

Grey tabby cat sleeping in a circle in leaves.

Circling before lying down is ordinary cat behavior, In most cases, it’s a cat’s way of creating a comfortable resting place.

Turning circles enables a cat to make its chosen sleeping place how it wants it before it lies down. Cats usually make a nest on soft surfaces in which they can curl up tight to keep warm.

In rare instances, a cat’s circling can become obsessive or indicate a medical problem. If you ever notice your cat circling incessantly, it is a good idea to consult your vet.

The reasons why wild cats circled before lying down

Many of the behaviors exhibited by cats today are inherited from their wild ancestors. It isn’t necessary for their survival but it was imperative to keep the predecessors alive in the wild.

Circling in wild cats had one major and several secondary purposes as follows:

To Find The Perfect Tactical Position

Wild cats did not sleep wherever they wanted – how unlike the cats of today! The location was chosen very carefully.

They needed to be upwind of any predators that were in the area, and they needed to have a good vantage point while still remaining hidden. Circling allowed them to find the perfect tactical resting position in their chosen location.

A cat would circle until it had the best view of approaching predators. It would also be able to best pick up their scents and ensure it was downwind of them so they would not know it was there.

To prepare against the cold

Grey cat asleep on a comfortable blanket.

Our cats’ ancestors did not have the luxury of the plush beds and temperature-controlled homes that our beloved cats enjoy today. Thus, when they were cold, wild cats relied on different methods to keep warm.

One of the things that cats used to do to stave off the cold was to tuck into a tight ball to sleep. Turning around in small circles to make a nest helped them to achieve this.  

The modern domestic cat will still turn in a tight circle before lying down to ward off the chill on a nippy day, even though they have less need to do so in their warm and loving homes with us.

To keep cool

Another issue for wild cats was excessive heat. In an effort to make their beds cooler, cats would turn in a circle, scratching up the dirt and uncovering the cool earth beneath the sun-soaked top layer.

Today, our cats may still employ the circling tactic to lift and move their blankets to find the cooler side. Think of it as having the same function as when you flip your pillow or move to a cooler part of the mattress.

To Make A Bed

Wild cats had to make their own beds. In grassier areas, circling would trample the grass flat, making it more comfortable to lie down on.

This would also loosen the earth, making it a softer surface than hard-packed dirt. Female cats would also create a comfy nest or bed in this way before giving birth.

Once again, cats today still do this. They will circle their beds to flatten any unwanted bumps and lumps.

Cats are quite fickle and fussy. You can set their beds up with all manner of cushions and blankets, but they will almost always rearrange it to their satisfaction.

To Scare Off Critters

In the times when cats roamed wild, their beds were potentially homes to all manner of critters that would not make welcome bedfellows.

Snakes and large insects needed to be chased out of the grass before cats could safely curl up. This was accomplished by turning in circles and disturbing the grass covering a cat’s chosen bed.

Or pet cats might have this problem if they choose to sleep outside, but it will not be a problem indoors – yet they still instinctively circle before lying down.

As we mentioned previously, some behaviors are deeply ingrained, and so today’s cats will not only circle when it is necessary.

Kneading And Spinning In Circles – A Cat’s Nap-Time Ritual

At times, it can look like a cat scratches its bed and spins in circles before falling asleep.

It’s not scratching but is kneading, or as it is affectionately known, making biscuits. This makes its bed or chosen sleeping spot as comfortable as possible.

Kneading helps a cat to relax and it is a comforting action carried with them from kittenhood. As babies, cats knead their mothers’ to help stimulate milk flow.

Kneading while turning a circle on their chosen napping spot also releases scent from glands on your cat’s paws. This marks the sleeping place as your cat’s territory.

Can A Cat Circling Be A Sign Of A Problem

Circling can occasionally occur for reasons other than sleep preparation.

Obsessive compulsive cat circling

Some cats can develop obsessive habits and which cause them to circle excessively before settling down. Eventually, they might also start to circle at other times, not only as part of their pre-sleep ritual.

Boredom driven circling in cats

Owners can unwittingly promote obsessive circling by not providing their cats with enough enrichment. An understimulated cat can become bored and feel compelled to circle more than is normal before settling down.

Circling invoked by stress and anxiety

Anxiety is also a trigger for behavior such as excessive circling and can be caused by many situations including an underlying illness, moving house, and the stress of a new pet joining the household.

If you are concerned that your cat’s circle-turning has gone beyond what is normal, you should consult a veterinarian.

Pain or discomfort-driven circling

Sometimes, cats circle for a long time before lying down or don’t lie down at all. This is not related to obsession or compulsion but instead is a sign of pain or discomfort.

A cat may circle and crouch as if it is about to lie down before standing up quickly and circling again. Or it may circle and lie down before quickly getting back up and circling again.

This type of circling is driven by a cat being unable to find a pain-free position. It may be avoiding lying down because it associated this with discomfort.

This is often a sign of a chronic condition such as arthritis but could signify a new pain in an otherwise healthy cat.

If your cat is circling and you suspect it is in pain, check for signs of injury or sensitivity to your touch. If you find no external cause of pain, it may be attributable to an internal issue.

Excessive circling can also be a sign of an inner ear problem so it is worth.

In either situation, a trip to the vet dor an examination is highly recommended.

Cognitive-related circling

Cats can suffer from a cognitive impairment that can lead to excessive circling.

Excessive circling may be a sign of feline dementia, also known as cognitive dysfunction, which generally afflicts senior cats but can occur at any age.

Other symptoms of this degenerative disease include stumbling, disorientation, abnormal litter tray behavior, restlessness, and unprompted vocalization.

Age-related circling

Tabby cat curled into a circle on a white bed.

Older cats can also suffer from arthritic diseases or the natural stiffness associated with aging skeletal and muscular systems.

Much to our sorrow, even the most experienced veterinarian cannot cure old age. However, they can prescribe pain relief and anti-inflammatory medications that can ease your cat’s discomfort and pain.

Turning in a circle before lying down is normal behavior. Almost all cats will perform this action as part of their settling-down routine.

Conclusion

Circling can help them adjust their beds or themselves according to the temperature or just make it feel more comfortable.

Historically cats would circle to find the safest position from predators. Circular trampling would also rid their chosen sleeping place of pests and snakes.

This behavior was innate and is still ingrained in today’s cats, although house cats do not have to be concerned about predators. as they sleep (not in most homes anyway!)

If your cat’s circling behavior becomes excessive, seems to be pain-driven, or concerns you in any way, don’t take any chances – make a trip to the vets.

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