If you share your home with a cat you've probably seen this scene before — your feline friend hops up on the couch or bed, finds a blanket to stand on, and circles around on it several times before finally lying down. She may even get back up after realizing the spot she spun around for wasn't actually the ideal fit just yet, she still has more spinning to do! It may seem strange to us, but cats turn before adopting their resting position for a very good reason and are often not even aware why.
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Understanding cat behavior
Many of the behaviors we see in cats, like all domestic animals, are passed down from their wild ancestors. One such behavior is circling an area before lying down on it, like a blanket, scarf, or piece of clothing worn by their person. Wild cats would rely on circling behaviors to regulate their body temperatures — either by winding up tight to keep warm on brisk evenings, or digging into the earth to find cooler soil to rest in during warmer months. Additionally, wild cats rely on sleep to conserve their energy as they are hunters, and need as much strength as possible to secure their next meals.
Kneading is another commonly seen behavior among cats that often goes hand in hand with circling before bed. Most often, kneading is used as somewhat of a self-soothing mechanism in cats or is done to show contentment or pleasure with their environment or mood at the moment. Because wild and outdoor cats with no blanket to call their own are left to the elements to rest in, patting down raw materials like leaves and grass is often done to create a more comfortable sleeping environment, and may contribute to kneading on indoor bedding as well.
Not just about comfort
In the wild, cats are left to their own defenses to protect themselves and their homes from possible predators. Because wild cats often sleep in den-like spaces, the need to pounce away at a moment's notice may be the difference between life and death in the event of an attack. Some research believes that cats may turn circles before retiring as a way of almost coiling themselves up and positioning their bodies in a way that will be most ideal for lunging and jumping out of harm's way. Indoor cats today likely don't have these same dangers to worry about, but the hard-wired behavior still lives on in many.
A cat may also knead on his favorite blanket before bedtime, or anytime really, as a way to mark his territory, another inherited trait from his wild ancestors that probably finds more use than coiling up to run in the middle of the night. Scent glands can be found on many areas of a cat's body, including the footpads, and are used to establish territorial boundaries with other cats. Continuously stomping or kneading on a blanket might be just one way that a feline might mark an area as his.
Not all cats are the same
While any or all of these theories may be true reasons for why a cat might turn around in circles before retiring on a blanket, there is no one correct answer that will apply to all cats. If you notice that your cat is compulsively circling before bedtime, or during random times throughout the day or night, you should consider consulting a veterinarian as it could be an indicator of a more serious issue. Older, adult cats may circle to alleviate pain associated with arthritis, and some cats may spin as a result of a neurological issue, which should be addressed as soon as possible.
Circling in cats may be done for a number of reasons, including regulating body heat, defense against predators, or simply, creating a comfortable bed to lay in. The behavior is inherited from their wild ancestors, so even though a number of these situations don't apply to indoor cats today, the natural instinct is hard-wired into them. If a cat is circling compulsively or for a prolonged period of time before lying down on a blanket, it could indicate medical issues like arthritis and should be addressed by a doctor to hopefully alleviate any pain associated with it.