Why do cats circle before they lay down?

Why do cats circle before they lay down? To get comfortable, of course, would be the obvious response. I see two answers; one is based on commonsense and the other takes a more scientific approach.

The Scenario

I’m on my bed dictating this article. My computer is on my lap. My cat approaches me and wants to sit where my computer is. I remove my computer from my lap and put it to one side. My cat looks at my lap for about four seconds and then walks onto it. He thinks. He then wants to settle down. He then makes two tight circles on my lap before plonking down in his usual position.

The Common Sense Answer

Why did he make those circles? The obvious and common sense reason is that he is making sure that he will be comfortable. He is selecting the right position to make sure that when he lies down on my lap he maximizes comfort. There are two basic options: he can face away from me or towards me. He invariably faces towards me but he appears to be making a selection. Ten minutes later he normally changes his position. He’ll change to facing away from me and take up a sleeping position with his head buried in my lap.

So the common sense answer is that when a cat makes tight circles before settling down, he or she is instinctively checking the ‘terrain’ to make sure that he will be as comfortable as possible when he settles. This answer appeals to me. Incidentally, I notice that while my cat is circling he is looking down towards his feet which indicates to me that he is checking the area upon which he will settle. This reinforces my belief that he is checking the contours of the area to make sure that his body fits into it as nicely as possible. Cats don’t always do it. This tells me that they have learnt the ideal position from past sessions.

A More Scientific Answer

Dogs also do this. And there’s no doubt that both cats and dogs do it as an inherited behavior from their wild ancestors which in the case of the dog is the grey wolf and for the cat is the North African wildcat. Obviously both these animals live in the wild. The terrain is less comfortable. Walking in tight circles may help to pat down the area where they wish to snooze to make it more comfortable.

There also may be the issue of survival so choosing a position in which to settle may be dictated by the field of view and what they can see from that position.

I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest cats and dogs circle in this way to tramp down the area or to make it some sort of marker to claim territory. I believe it has to do with being comfortable and there will be probably an element of survival behind it because in the wild a cat is vulnerable when he’s resting on the ground.

2 thoughts on “Why do cats circle before they lay down?”

  1. Horses do it too, I think; it’s been awhile since I’ve been around them. Wait, they don’t need to circle around to look around (they can see 360 degrees), but they do check the ground out I’m sure (they drop their heads).


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