by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
While sleeping or napping, blood-flow to the muscles is reduced to prevent excess movement. When cats wake up, they need to get the blood flowing to the muscles and brain again, to bring fresh oxygen and remove and toxic build-up, and stretching is a good way to achieve this.
Stretching also lubricates joints, stretches the muscle fibres, increasing the range of motion, making them instantly ready for defence, hunting, or playing. It eases any tension in the body, releases endorphins, and gives a feeling of well-being. Cats can use stretches to calm themselves down, and to gain a few moments to think about what to do next.
Kneading with tiny paws to stimulate milk production is the first stretching exercise that young kittens have. This kneading behaviour often carries over to adulthood, as a sign of contentment, or when they need self-comforting. As they grow bigger and gain control of their limbs, they will start to stretch their bodies too.
Cats use stretching for communicating; when relaxed they stretch as a greeting to show they feel safe with us, to attract attention for a cuddle, or to reach out to touch you. When lying near you, he may stretch a paw in order to touch you, also a sign that he is relaxed and secure in your company, and enjoys being near you.
A stretched cat looks bigger than normal, so stretching can be used to deter an attack from a predator, or nuisance behaviour from a dog or person. While stretched, the cat is vulnerable, as the muscles need to relax to prepare for the fight or flight response to the threat.
Stretching is also used in playing, hunting, grooming, and scent marking. It can also be used as a distraction behaviour, when the cat is uncertain of the situation, and needs time to consider his options. Female cats on heat will use stretching, along with other body language and vocalisation, to call for a mate.
As cats become older, stretching may be more difficult; the less they move the more rigid they become, and the less easy it is to stretch fully.
To contact Barbara, please email firstname.lastname@example.org