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Your Pet's Wacky Sleeping Behavior

Dogs and cats, unlike humans, don’t just plop down in bed when they are tired. They spend lots of time preparing their bed before snuggling in for the night. Sleepy dogs and cats turn around in circles which looks like a dance to the sleeping gods before going to sleep. This bedtime ritual is a bit compulsive and sleep evades them until they complete their nightly dance routine.

How does circling help with survival?

Dog behaviorists believe that a dog’s need to perform the bedtime ritual of turning around in circles before lying down is inherited. Canine ancestors like wild wolves did the same thing, and domestic dogs retained this genetic predisposition.  Behaviors like this one are aimed at self-preservation and are strong influences that persist for generations in the animal kingdom.

Some wildlife enthusiasts believe that wolves sleep with their noses to the wind so that they can quickly pick up on a threatening scent. Circling allows the wolf to determine the direction of the wind so that he can best position himself. With a quick whiff, the wolf knows that he may be in danger and is alerted for a potential attack.


Most domestic pets sleep in our homes or in another safe, controlled environment.  Even though they aren’t subject to attack by wild animals, our canine friends have retained this protective trait.  


How does circling help dogs traveling in packs?

Wild canids, like wolves, foxes, and coyotes, travel in packs that include many family members. The entire group is protective of the members of the pack and is on the constant lookout for stragglers. Turning around helps group leaders assess the pack and survey the area for members that may have fallen behind.


Every pack has an established hierarchy. Some members are more dominant while others are submissive. The bedtime turning routine may also be part of a ritual that identifies a wolf’s place in the pecking order of the pack.


How does circling help with comfort?

Here’s a more basic reason for canine circling. Dogs in the wild don’t have the luxury of manufactured doggie beds and pillows. They make their own “beds” in nature. To make their sleeping quarters more comfortable, dogs and cats pat down tall grass and move prickly underbrush and sticks before lying down in a safe, comfortable place.



This “nesting” procedure also uncovers unwanted inhabitants like snakes or insects. Like you, other animals don’t like to share their beds with intruders.


How does circling help with temperature?

Dogs and cats in the wild have no control over weather conditions and had to survive extreme changes in temperature. They couldn’t turn down a thermostat when it was hot or grab a blanket when it was cold, so they adapted by “denning” to moderate the temperature of their sleeping quarters.


Outdoor dogs in hotter climates scratched at the ground to clear away topsoil and grass that retained and radiated the sun’s warmth. Removing the topsoil exposed cooler soil underneath. Scratching and turning allowed them to find a more comfortable temperature for sleeping.


In colder climates dogs and cats circle to wind themselves into tight balls to conserve personal body heat. The tighter the tuck, the warmer the animal will stay. In addition, other pack members gathered together in a tight circle to effectively share body heat.  So, the bedtime turning ritual has a biological basis, too.


How does circling help our pets?

These are all good reasons for wild animals to circle before lying down, but how does this relate to our contemporary, domestic pets?


The desire for comfort is innate, so one explanation is that our dogs and cats circle before lying down to get their beds just the way they want them. Unlike us, a quick plump of the pillow won’t do.

What if the circling is excessive?

While watching our dogs turn around before laying down may be amusing, it can also be a signal that something is wrong. Dogs and cats that are in pain will circle excessively as they struggle to find a more comfortable position. They may also get up and lay down several times before completely reclining.


If your pet has difficulty settling down even after making several revolutions, consult your veterinarian. Orthopedic disorders like arthritis and neurological disorders like spinal cord or back problems can “turn” the routine nighttime “turning” into a painful experience. With proper evaluation and therapy, bedtime can once again become a comforting AND comfortable ritual.


GROW is designed to be a resource and an entertaining publication for the whole family, by utilizing real and authentic family life experiences to challenge, encourage, inspire, and GROW families.

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