For years now I have noticed that my cat sometimes swallows 1-3 times after I have physically interacted with him. What do I mean by ‘physical interaction’? It might be flea combing him. That’s a good example. It is a pleasant experience for both of us. He actively asks for it. Or your cat might swallow after you bury your head in his fur or kiss his forehead because you like the smell and the feel of it. Or they might swallow after you have petted them. It might depend upon how hard you pet them.
If you’ve never seen this form of feline behaviour, I would like you to check it out. Please do it over a period of a few days a week so that you obtain an accurate picture of when he or she does it. Or your cat might not do it at all but I suspect that they will. It is an automatic reaction. It is not voluntary but instinctive as if it is hardwired into their brain.
And I’ve been scratching my head (another automatic displacement behaviour) to try and figure out why cats do this. You won’t find the answer in reference books. You have to do work it out yourself or look for anecdotal evidence or the opinions of observant cat owners.
My conclusion is that domestic cats sometimes swallow after physical interactions with their human companion because (1) they may have suffered a little bit of stress and their sympathetic nervous system has kicked in and/or (2) they are uncertain about what has happened or is happening and they swallow as a form of displacement activity to alleviate that feeling of uncertainty. These two reasons overlap. There is a 3rd possibility which has just come to me. They may be instinctively licking you in return. Petting a cat is like licking them and therefore it provokes licking in a cat. The swallowing action could be a vestigial version of licking i.e. allogrooming.
I would like to expand on this. People ask why cats lick themselves after you have petted them. They lick over the same area where you petted them. I believe this is because you provoke a licking response when you pet them (stroke them) which to the cat is like being licked. It’s an automatic response. It is entirely plausible I think that if your cat swallows after you pet them it is because they produce more saliva because they want to lick you. But they don’t actually lick you. The behaviour is a vestigial version of allogrooming i.e. licking another
Human behavior – the swallow or gulp – uncertainty
And a good starting point in assessing feline behaviour can be human behaviour. There is a very big overlap between feline and human behaviour. And if we trust in the answer as to why humans swallow involuntary at certain times then we have to conclude that domestic cats are slightly stressed even when we pet them sometimes OR they are uncertain about the experience. There appears to be two possible reasons: slight anxiety/nervousness or uncertainty.
I think the best answer as to why people swallow when they are stressed comes from a contributor on the Reddit.com website. Her name is Suddenly Meow. Her thoughts are embedded into this website below.
Yes, people do gulp when they are scared, stressed and/or uncertain or unsure – overlapping emotions. It’s a well-known phrase. “He gulped in fear and anticipation of what might happen next”. That’s an example of a sentence as to how the automatic swallow occurs the humans.
And this woman thinks that we do it because the mouth dries up and we need to keep the mouth lubricated with the production of saliva which then needs to be swallowed. It’s a side effect of a dry mouth. And the dry mouth is caused by a panic hormone called cortisol.
Other answers that I have read concern the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The former is the flight or fight automatic response. Both humans and cats have it.
One contributor on the core.com website believes that people swallow when they are stressed and nervous because the digestive system becomes less active when we are stressed. The swallow is a precursor to that behaviour. And she believes that the adrenal glands that are activated by the sympathetic nervous system need saliva to function. And also, the increased blood flow when we are stressed causes saliva glands to excrete more fluid.
So how does all this relate to our companion cats and their propensity to sometimes swallow when we physically interact with them?
It’s a known fact that petting your cat is not automatically a pleasurable experience for him or her. We pet our cats to both please ourselves and our cat. It is a bonding experience. But the concept of petting our cat comes entirely from people. We offer it. We want to do it. Cats don’t really ask for it. They ask for food but they don’t in my experience specifically asked to be petted as we want to do it.
And it is a known fact that human caregivers of domestic cats can over-pet their cats. Or they can do it in the wrong way. Or, it might happen if you hold your cat in the wrong way or perhaps squeeze him slightly too hard. The point that I’m slowly getting at is that if your cat swallows after you pet or hold him it may be a little sign of mild stress. He both enjoys the interaction but at the same time there might be a little bit of uncertainty resulting in slight nervousness resulting, in turn, with the automatic swallow.
And if you bury your head in your cat’s flank or kiss his forehead which are both pleasurable experiences to devoted cat owners, he may swallow afterwards because, once again, it is mildly stressful. That may be a surprising thought to many cat owners. And many of you might disagree with me.
Intermittent form of behaviour
I am not saying that domestic cats always swallow after a physical interaction with their human caregiver. Perhaps most of the time they don’t. However, you will see it sometimes which indicates to me that some of the things that we do are not always fully acceptable to domestic cats.
Displacement activity due to uncertainty
An overlap with this slight nervousness would be uncertainty. And when a cat is uncertain, they sometimes engage in what is called displacement activity. You see this when a cat licks his nose. They are unsure what to do or what is going on and they employ displacement activity to alleviate the feeling of that uncertainty. I wonder if swallowing is another version of displacement activity. It might well be.
I think it’s a reasonable assessment. I know my cat swallows when he is a little bit nervous. Or uncertain about what happening. But most often this uncertainty arises during physical interaction with me. I’m not saying that the stress that he might feel is detrimental to him. It is not a serious issue but one that needs to be observed and discussed.
Are we doing things wrong?
Perhaps we are doing things incorrectly? This very subtle sign: the single, double or triple swallow after a physical interaction with our cat may signal something to us which we should respond to. Perhaps we should learn from it and modify our behaviour accordingly?
Social or solitary
We do make a lot of presumptions as to what our cat likes from us. In general, people like physical contact with other people because it is reassuring. We are social animals. We need a physical contact to be whole. We need the network.
Essentially, the domestic cat is a solitary animal. They have evolved over 10,000 years of domestication to become quite sociable but at their core, in their DNA, they are still wild cats at heart and the wildcat ancestor of the domestic cat is a solitary creature. We should be careful not to project what we want onto our cat. They are a different species. Obvious? Yes. But sometimes we forget that because we treat our cats as members of the family.
Close range interactions
Perhaps this is the starting point in this discussion. Every interaction that we have with our cat at close range has the potential to stress out cats. The interactions also have the potential to please her cat and cement the bond between us.
Default emotional state of cats
I have always believed that the default emotional state of the domestic cat in many homes is one of slight nervousness. It is our role to create a very calm environment and one which feeds into the raw cat as Jackson Galaxy because it. This helps to calm them and make them feel as if they belong in the environment. It is fundamentally an alien environment for a domestic cat. It is the human environment and I’ve stated many times that the domestic cat is a wild cat at heart and in their mentality.