What are the causes of pacing and circling in cats?

Updated April 17, 2017

Cats of all ages and breeds pace and circle. Some of this activity is relatively normal for felines, but ongoing, obsessive or distressed pacing or circling may be a sign of a problem. If a cat's pacing or circling is accompanied by other symptoms, it may require the attention of a veterinarian.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

If the pacing seems compulsive and without purpose, the cat may have a behavioural disorder, such as obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD in cats is characterised by compulsive pacing and grooming, such as rubbing fur so aggressively that it causes bald spots. If a cat's pacing is accompanied by such extreme grooming or compulsive chewing on fabric, the cat may behave that way to release pain-relieving chemicals in the brain. This behaviour may have been initially triggered by a certain stressor, such as a new pet, which may become fixed over time, no longer requiring a designated stressor or situation to trigger the behaviour.


Cat pacing and circling are often symptomatic of ongoing anxiety. Cats experience anxiety for a number of reason, including change in a familiar environment. For instance, if the cat's owners move to a new home, if the cat is adopted by new owners or a new pet is introduced, the cat may become very anxious and relieve tension by pacing, circling or clawing furniture. Cat anxiety can also cause vomiting, meowing, trembling, apathy, clawing furniture, weight loss, urinating or defecating in the house and loss of affection.


Cats also pace and circle to respond to immediate threats. When a cat perceives a threat, its brain signals the production of chemicals from the hypothalamus gland. The hypothalamus releases the chemicals that prepare the cat for fight or flight. A threat might be the sound of fireworks, loud noises or the sight of another animal outside the window. When the brain releases these chemicals, the body is energised; the cat paces and circles to release some of this energy.

Exercise or Boredom

Sometimes cats pace or circle for exercise. After napping or sitting for a long period of time, the cat may pace simply to stretch the muscles or to more fully awaken. Boredom is another cause of pacing. When cats are confined to a small area, they may pace for the sake of activity. If a cat does not appear to be distressed or anxious when pacing, it may simply be working its limbs.

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About the Author

Audrey Farley began writing professionally in 2007. She has been featured in various issues of "The Mountain Echo" and "The Messenger." Farley has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Richmond and a Master of Arts in English literature from Virginia Commonwealth University. She teaches English composition at a community college.