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Ask Dr. Universe: Why do dogs and cats spin around before they sit down?

Polly, an 11-year-old Lab mix, cuddles with a toy on her bed. She usually spins around a couple times before finding a comfy spot to lie down.  (Kimberly Lusk/The Spokesman-Review)
Polly, an 11-year-old Lab mix, cuddles with a toy on her bed. She usually spins around a couple times before finding a comfy spot to lie down. (Kimberly Lusk/The Spokesman-Review)
By Washington State University

Washington State University

Dr. Universe: Why do dogs and cats spin around before they sit down? – Antonio, 10, Richmond, Virginia

Dear Antonio,

That’s a great observation about cats and dogs. I took your question to my friend Dr. Jessica Bell.

She is a veterinarian at the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital and has seen quite a few cats and dogs walk in a little circle before they sit down.

“It’s a common thing we observe as veterinarians, but we can’t talk to cats and dogs and ask them ‘why,’ ” she said. “From a behavioral standpoint, it probably stems back to their wild instinct.”

An instinct is a behavior that animals don’t have to learn. They are born with this behavior, and it often helps them survive in the world.

When cats and dogs spin in a full circle, they have a chance to observe their environment. They might even spin in circles a few times to be certain the spot where they want to sit is safe.

They are likely keeping their eyes out for any danger such as predators. This behavior was especially important when felines and canines lived in the wild. While a lot of cats and dogs may live in homes with humans these days, they never lost this instinct.

You may have also noticed that sometimes cats and dogs sniff around as they get ready to lie down. Both senses of sight and smell can help these animals make sure the coast is clear. Bell also told me that once the animal knows a space is safe, it will often return to the same spot.

“They often position themselves in the same place on their bed every time or face the same direction,” she said.

While that may be the more scientific answer to your question, she also offered another idea.

“I think many dogs and cats are just finding a good, comfy, fluffy spot to lay down with just the right depth and cushiness,” she said.

Finding a good place to rest can also be helpful for dogs who are getting a bit older. For instance, dogs that have arthritis, a condition where the joints get stiff or swollen, will often walk in a slow circle before they lie down.

If you keep your eye out, you may notice that other animals, such as horses or birds, walk in a circle before they sit, too. You might see birds getting comfortable in their nests or a birdhouse. They even flip around their feathers and move different parts of their nest to get everything just right before they settle in.

You know, a lot of veterinarians pay close attention to animal behavior and ask a lot of questions about it as they take care of our pets. If you keep up the great observations and continue to ask questions, you might just help us learn more about the amazing animals on our planet one day.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a project from Washington State University. Submit a question at askdruniverse@wsu.edu.

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