It’s a daily occurrence in my house that I’m sure every cat guardian can relate to.
If the dining room table is clear, within 5 minutes of putting anything on it (e.g. bag, paper, folder, even a phone), Max has discovered it and is now lying on it! It’s the same with throwing a piece of clothing on the bed, or a box on the floor. It won’t be long before it’s found and ‘commandeered’!
Like many guardians, I’ve watched this behaviour and wondered what drives cats to do this. I had one or two theories, but thought I’d see what the literature says.
As it turns out, unsurprisingly, there are no real studies on it. It’s simply a behaviour that everyone knows about but not why. However, I can find lots of theories. As with all behaviours, it must serve a purpose (even if it’s just ‘because it feels good’) otherwise it wouldn’t happen!
Let’s go through some of the more probable theories now.
This is especially true if the ‘thing’ being laid on is something you’re using. A book or a magazine you’re reading, or a keyboard you’re typing on, is prime real estate for a cat that wants attention!
If in the past, he has gotten your attention when he wanted it by plonking himself down on something in front of you, this is exactly what he’ll do next time he wants your attention! That is operant conditioning at work.
In my view, this is one of the more probable theories.
Cats have scent glands scattered all over their body, and lying on things (and just generally being in contact with them) transfers his scent to the object.
Being that a cat’s world is all about smell, depositing his scent on to an object will allow him to claim ownership of it, which provides him enormous comfort and satisfaction!
We all know that cats are curious creatures, and they are highly sensitive to changes in their environment. Anything new in his environment is likely to be explored (especially a confident cat).
This also applies for things that may not be new, but are in a ‘new’ place where they weren’t before, like a t-shirt on the bed.
Cats like to mix their scent with yours. This is part of why they are drawn to socially-significant locations like your bed or the lounge, as these places are usually where your smell is the strongest.
This may explain why a used t-shirt on the bed, or your handbag on the table/floor may be prime laying down locations, but it doesn’t explain why other things that don’t smell like you are also the focus.
It may sound ridiculous, but by lying on the piece of paper or bag, rather than any other place on the table may make them feel elevated. In the cat world, elevation means safety, comfort, and can possibly project hierarchical status with other cats. So that extra couple of millimetres or centimetres may just satisfy an inbuilt genetic quirk.
Because, you know, the highest thing on the table is that piece of paper!
Think about cats and boxes. Being in a confined space (of their choosing) gives cats a host of mental and physical benefits like (perceived) safety and comfort.
This thought pattern may be transferred over to smaller defined areas too. So, a t-shirt on the bed is a smaller ‘space’ than the rest of the bed itself.
Have you heard of the Square Tape challenge? It’s a good example of this in action. Here’s a youtube video:
There you go, a quick selection and explanation of the main theories of this quirky and amusing behaviour.
Is this something your cat does? Have you noticed any patterns that may explain the motive behind it?
Here’s to happy and healthy cats!