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The Rolling of Domestic Cats

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

by Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research staff

Domestic cats roll. Oh, they roll and roll and roll—not constantly, but often enough that the behavior eventually caught the attention of scientists. In 1994, Hilary N. Feldman of Cambridge University’s Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour did a formal study of the phenomenon. Feldman’s monograph, called “Domestic Cats and Passive Submission,” appeared in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Other scientists had made little leaping swats at the question. Feldman commends J.M. Baerends-Van Roon and G.P. Baerends’ book The Morphogenesis of the Behaviour of the Domestic Cat, and also L.K. Corbett’s University of Aberdeen Ph.D. thesis, “Feeding ecology and social organization of wildcats (Felis silvestris) and domestic cats (Felis catus) in Scotland.” Both came out in 1979, marking that year as the previous high point in cat-rolling scholarship.

(Image credit: Flickr user Louisa Billeter)

But Baerends-Van Roon, Baerends, and Corbett only glanced at rolling. Feldman focused on it, and spent six months observing “two groups of semiferal cats kept in a large outdoor enclosure.”

Rolling, by Feldman’s definition,

involved an individual cat rolling onto its back, with forepaws held cocked, often with the legs splayed and abdomen exposed... The exposed position was sometimes held for several minutes and was assumed repeatedly in several instances. This was performed in front of another cat in the majority of cases (79%), and often the rolling animal would approach rapidly and perform the action before any response to the approach was observed.

The big question of interest, going into this, was the extent to which “each cat was equally likely to roll to any other individual” versus the extent to which each cat was not. These were adults. The report specifies that “kitten behaviour was not examined.”

Over the course of the half-year, Feldman observed 175 rolls, of which 138 “had an obvious recipient.”

(Image credit: Flickr user Sangudo)

Females rolled mostly while they were in heat. Adult females rolled almost exclusively for adult males. Younger females went mostly for old guys too, but occasionally rolled for young males or for females.

Males rolled “throughout the year.” Feldman writes that “a substantial proportion [61%] of the rolling behaviour was performed by males, and most of this male-initiated activity was directed towards other males.”

Young males rolled toward adults, but the reverse almost never happened. The adults would “ignore or tolerate the younger males’ presence,” suggesting to Feldman “that rolling may act as passive submission and inhibits the development of overt aggression.”

“Both adult and juvenile males rolled... towards adult females. As with female rolls, it is likely that these rolls were performed in the context of mating, as they occurred when females were displaying other oestrus-related behaviour (e.g. lordosis [exaggerated curving of the spine], erratic running, treading).”

In summary:

“Rolling behaviour in domestic cats appears to have two functions. Females roll primarily in the presence of adult males..., demonstrating a readiness to mate.” But “males roll near adult males as a form of subordinate behavior.”

(Image credit: 4028mdk09)

This “phenomenon of passive submission,” Feldman muses, “may have relevance for a similar behaviour between pet cats and their owners”.

“Domestic Cats and Passive Submission,” Hilary N. Feldman, Animal Behaviour, vol. 47, no. 2, February 1994, pp. 457-459.

The Morphogenesis of the Behaviour of the Domestic Cat, J.M. Baerends-Van Roon and G.P. Baerends, Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing, 1979.

“Feeding ecology and social organization of wildcats (Felis silvestris) and Domestic Cats (Felis catus) in Scotland,” L.K. Corbett, Ph.D. thesis, University of Aberdeen, 1979.


The article above is from the May-June 2015 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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