Why do cats stretch so much?
You’ve just walked in after a long day at work. Your cat greets you at the door, stretching one long back leg behind him, and then the other.
You’ve woken your cat from a nap for a meal. She gets up, arches her back dramatically, and saunters to the bowl.
Your cat has just woken from a midday snooze. She rouses herself with a ferocious yawn, stretches both front paws out in front and dips into a perfect downward dog.
When cats aren’t eating, sleeping, or playing, they’re stretching. Am I right?
Actually…I’m not right.
None of the behaviors I described above are stretching. They’re actually “pandiculations.” Pandiculation is the opposite of stretching.
You do it all the time yourself, even if you’ve never heard of it.
What is pandiculation?
Have you ever woken, drowsy and relaxed, from a deep sleep, only to yawn widely, pull your elbows back like wings and then stretch your arms overhead? That’s pandiculation.
You didn’t think about it; you just did it, and you didn’t so much stretch as contract your muscles.
What is the purpose of pandiculation?
Pandiculation is nature’s way of preparing a body to move. The purpose of pandiculation is to reset the central nervous system so that the muscles of the body can function with ease.
Pandiculation is a natural reflex that is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. That only means that pandiculation is an automatic function – something we (and cats) don’t have to control or think about to do.
What happens during pandiculation?
Tension, or tightness, tends to build up in muscles.
Sometimes tension builds up when the muscles don’t get used for a certain period of time, like when your cat is sleeping.
Tension also builds up in muscles that get used in a repetitive way, like if you sit hunched over your computer all day, or if you perform a repetitive motion in sports or at work.
In an imaginary perfect world, muscles would just relax to a neutral position when not in use, but that’s not how bodies work. Brains tend to “remember” tightness, and don’t release the muscles to their natural resting length when you finally walk away from your computer at the end of the day, or put down the hammer you'd been swinging.
This is where pandiculation comes in.
The three phases of pandiculation
Pandiculation starts with a contraction.
A contraction could be a yawn. Yawning tightens the facial muscles, mouth, respiratory system, and upper spine. Yawning is often associated with pandiculation in other body parts and scientists call this SYS, which stands for stretch-yawning syndrome.
A downward dog is a contraction, too, even though it looks like a stretch. When your cat bows down, she’s not stretching her belly so much as contracting her neck and back muscles.
In pandiculation, a muscle contraction, like a yawn or downward dog, sends information to your cat’s brain about the level of tension in his muscles. It’s part of the alpha-gamma feedback loop, which is a “conversation” between the brain, nervous system, spinal cord and muscles.
The next step, after contraction, is release. A cat finishes arching her back, for example, or you drop your arms from that overhead “stretch” upon waking up in the morning. It’s the relaxation phase of the pandiculation.
And the final step of pandiculation is the lengthening of the muscles to their natural resting length. Pandiculation activates muscles spindles, which are sensory receptors in the muscles, that tell the muscles to fully release.
How does pandiculation help a cat move better?
Pandiculation is the brain’s way of reclaiming the length of muscle that was “lost” to tension. It’s like the muscle was stuck with a certain amount of continuous contraction, and pandiculation reboots the whole system, allowing the brain to take control of muscle length again.
Cats who have just pandiculated have reset their muscles to allow for better control, balance, coordination, and proprioception (a cat’s awareness of his own body’s position in space).
Pandiculation is an involuntary behavior performed by all vertebrate animals. Vertebrates are animals with backbones, which includes you and me, dogs, cats, and even birds.
It’s such a basic, intrinsic behavior, there’s evidence that embryos pandiculate in the womb.
How is pandiculation different from stretching?
Stretching involves putting the body in a specific position and holding it, sometimes with the help of another body part or a piece of equipment, with the intention of lengthening a muscle.
To perform a quadriceps stretch, a standing person might place a hand on a wall for balance, bend the leg on the opposite side and grab the ankle, gently pulling up to feel the stretch in the front of the thigh.
But, if a muscle is stretched a little too far or too quickly, the “stretch reflex” is activated. The stretch reflex actually causes muscles to contract, rather than lengthen. The stretch reflex is the body’s way of protecting the muscle, tendons, and ligaments from being overstretched or torn.
At best, stretching will temporarily lengthen a muscle, but it can have the longer-term effect of making a muscle even tighter than it was before.
Pandiculation, by contrast, gets the brain to change the length of a muscle.
Cats pandiculate up to 50 times per day, according to at least one source. That’s a lot of stretching-that’s-not-really-stretching!
We now know that cats are really pandiculating when they contort themselves into strange shapes upon waking from a nap.
And they’re doing so, so that they can be their very best, most athletic, most coordinated, most well-balanced, and most flexible cat selves.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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