Why Do Cats Yawn? A Veterinarian Explains


Updated: October 20, 2023

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Across the animal kingdom, from humans to fish to birds, there exists a common behavior—an instinctual, deep inhale with mouths agape. This phenomenon, known as a yawn, manifests in moments of weariness, ennui, or shifts in air pressure. Familiar to us all, it carries a peculiar trait: its contagious nature. Witnessing a yawn in another can readily induce one in ourselves.

Yet, what of our feline companions? Cats, it seems, are prone to yawning frequently, at times without apparent cause. Could there be a deeper significance to their yawning? To unravel this mystery, we must delve into the intricacies of both yawning physiology and the unique lifestyle of our enigmatic feline friends.

Read also: Why Do Cats Lick? (Kitty Kisses)

A Medical Mystery: The Purpose of Yawning

The enigma of yawning leaves science with few unequivocal explanations. While it is a widespread occurrence across the animal kingdom, frequently preceding or following periods of rest, the origins and evolutionary purpose behind this behavior remain elusive.

Despite this uncertainty, we do possess some informed speculations that pertain to both humans and our feline counterparts.

Oxygen Rush

An excess of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the bloodstream spells trouble, leading to symptoms like dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, visual and auditory impairments, and difficulty breathing. Typically, the lungs regulate CO2 levels by expelling it through exhalation. However, when levels become dangerously high, the most effective remedy is oxygen.

Inhaling a generous gulp of fresh air, as in the case of a yawn, delivers a substantial infusion of oxygen to the bloodstream, countering the effects of elevated CO2. It’s plausible that cats yawn in response to their bodies detecting rising CO2 levels, an instinctive effort to enhance their oxygen intake. This yawning mechanism might function as an automatic defense, safeguarding the cat from potential oxygen deprivation.

On the Lookout

You might have observed that when fatigue sets in, a hearty yawn can occasionally jolt you awake, pulling you back from the brink of slumber. The surge of oxygen to the brain heightens alertness, if only for a short while.

This suggests that animals may have developed the tendency to yawn for survival-oriented motives. After all, the natural world can be fraught with peril. The more vigilant you are, the greater your chances of evading predators or, in the case of a cat, spotting your next meal.

Keeping It Cool

Mammals possess intricately evolved brains that function optimally within narrow temperature parameters. Cats, like their fellow mammals, adhere to this principle; when subjected to excessive heat, their cognitive functions may start to deteriorate. Some scientists posit that yawning serves as a mechanism to avert this decline by facilitating a cooling effect on the brain, and by extension, the entire body, through an influx of fresh air.

The Modern Yawner: What Does a Cat Yawn Mean?

Cat yawns signify both physical relaxation and heightened vigilance, reflecting evolutionary adaptations for survival in domestic and wild environments.

Nothing to Do

In the absence of engagement, a cat can quickly grow bored. When left without interaction or play, its alertness wanes, often leading to a yawn.

This yawning response mirrors a familiar human experience. We’ve all yawned in unstimulating situations like a dull class or while reading a tedious book.

Chilling Out

At times, a cat yawns out of sheer contentment. It’s not necessarily on the brink of a nap or seeking stimulation.

In this tranquil state, the cat employs the yawn as a form of communication, signaling to humans and fellow felines, “I’m so at ease that I could easily doze off right here if I wished.”

So, if you find yourself sitting with your cat on the couch and it yawns without any inclination to sleep, consider it a compliment. It might be an unusual one, but when a cat lets its guard down to yawn in your presence, it signifies a profound level of trust and companionship. In the feline world, being yawned at is a significant honor, and you’ll likely find it hard to resist reciprocating the gesture.

A (Possibly) Rude Awakening

Upon awakening from a nap, cats delight in an expansive stretch, often extending their toes. This ritualistic stretch is frequently complemented by a hearty yawn. The stretching aids in the cat’s arousal by boosting blood circulation throughout its body, while the yawn furnishes the additional oxygen required for the newly invigorated blood.

If you’ve ever gently roused a slumbering cat, you might have observed it raise its head, yawn with ears pressed back, shoot you a brief glare, and then promptly return to its nap. In this scenario, the yawn coupled with the ear position conveys a touch of irritation—much like how you might feel if someone disturbed your midday siesta!

Contagious Behavior: The Social Benefits of Yawning

Yawning, a contagious act, fosters social bonds. It synchronizes group alertness and empathy, vital for survival and community cohesion among animals, including humans.

Catching the Yawn Bug

The contagious nature of yawning is a widespread phenomenon, not limited to humans alone. Dogs and cats, for instance, exhibit this response as well. Interestingly, this cross-species behavior extends even further: cats have been documented yawning in response to human yawns, and vice versa!

If you’re a cat owner, you can put this to the test. Cats possess the ability to distinguish between a genuine yawn and a simple mouth opening, so go ahead and give a heartfelt yawn to your feline companion and observe if it reciprocates. Odds are, it just might!

For the Good of the Group

While this enigmatic behavior may appear superfluous for the contemporary domesticated cat, its significance becomes strikingly clear when viewed in the context of life in the wild.

Picture a pride of lions, wearied after an extensive hunt yet compelled to maintain vigilance for potential threats. One lion initiates a yawn, experiencing a minor surge in alertness while also communicating to the group its dwindling energy reserves. This yawn subsequently ripples through the other lions, bestowing upon them a similar boost in vigilance. Now, the pride can strategically allocate sentinel responsibilities to those more inclined to remain awake for extended periods.

Is yawning in cats contagious like it is in humans?

Yes, yawning can be contagious among cats and can also be triggered by observing other cats or even humans yawning.

Should I be concerned if my cat yawns excessively?

While occasional yawning is normal, excessive yawning could be a sign of underlying health issues or stress. If you notice a sudden increase in yawning, it’s advisable to consult a veterinarian.

Can cats yawn when they are not tired?

Yes, cats can yawn even when they are not necessarily tired. Yawning is not only a sign of sleepiness but also a way for cats to release tension or adjust to changes in their surroundings.

Do cats yawn for attention?

Cats may yawn as a form of communication or to signal to their owners that they are in need of something, such as play, food, or companionship. However, it’s important to consider other behavioral cues alongside yawning.

Are there different types of yawns in cats?

While there isn’t an extensive classification, cats can exhibit various yawn styles. Some may be subtle, while others can be wide and dramatic, often accompanied by stretching.

Can excessive yawning indicate a health problem in cats?

Yes, excessive yawning, especially when combined with other unusual behaviors or symptoms, could be a sign of an underlying health issue. It’s recommended to seek professional veterinary advice if you have concerns.

How can I help reduce yawning in my cat?

Ensuring your cat has a stimulating environment with plenty of mental and physical activities can help reduce boredom-related yawning. Additionally, providing a comfortable and stress-free living space can contribute to a cat’s overall well-being.

Conclusion

The enigmatic phenomenon of yawning in cats unveils a fascinating intersection of instinct, physiology, and feline behavior. From moments of weariness to subtle forms of communication, a cat’s yawn serves as a multifaceted window into their world. While occasional yawning is perfectly normal, vigilance is warranted for any sudden or excessive displays, as they may signal underlying health concerns.

Understanding and responding to our feline companions’ yawning habits not only enhances our bond with them but also ensures their well-being. By observing and respecting their unique expressions, we can continue to nurture happy and contented cats in our homes.


Michael R

Michael R

I'm a publisher and editor at Cat Guide 101. I imagine that since you’re here, you likely own a cat — or two! — so helping you better understand them is my aim. I'd like to invite you to check out our about page to learn more about the Cat Guide 101 story.

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