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Ask a Behaviorist: Why Do Cats Hang Out in Weird Places?

Cats seek odd spots such as small boxes, cabinets, and even people's heads for good reasons.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Aug 7th 2015


Cats are amazing. They are masters at converting seemingly awkward places into cozy spots. Tiny containers, computer keyboards, hard or soft surfaces, and even people’s heads can be ideal hangouts.

Many of these places seem impossible for kitties to fit in. Yet cats somehow manage to squeeze into tiny spaces, perfectly sized for animals who are no larger than hamsters. Then they contort themselves into ungainly positions and fall asleep.

That does not look comfortable!<

That does not look comfortable! by Shutterstock.

They also excel at making hard, cold sinks and bath tubs look like cozy spots to curl up and nap.  Other times they are the masters of seclusion — finding places deep in closets, in drawers, or behind furniture to hide and snooze. Some cats have a penchant for human heads, sleeping and perching on them — movement does not deter them.

Zombie, hanging out on his favorite person’s head. by Kelly Ann Bennett.

Zombie, hanging out on his favorite person’s head. Photo by Kelly Ann Bennett

It’s not just one factor that influences where cats hang out. There are many legitimate reasons that make some spots more appealing than others.

Temperature control

One of the reasons cats squeeze into tiny boxes, lounge deep in closets, nap on heads, and curl up in sinks is to regulate body temperature.

On a cold day, there’s nothing sweeter than finding a warm place to curl up and nap. It’s not unusual to find cats under covers, on high shelves (heat rises), or dozing on heat register covers. Beds are special places — in addition to blankets being warm, cats like to nap surrounded by the scent of their favorite people. Sometimes they find places for a warm snooze that are surprising — such as on people’s heads. Heat escapes from heads, making them ideal places for siestas. Soft pillows along with the owners’ smell are added incentives for curling up on special people’s heads for comfy snoozes.

Monkey, sound asleep on his person’s head.

Monkey, sound asleep on his person’s head. Photo by Steve Robello.

Heads aren’t the only warm place to hang out. Boxes have a lot of things going for them. Most, especially those made of cardboard, retain heat. Size and positioning make a difference too. Depending on the direction they are facing, boxes can shelter cats from cold breezes. Tiny boxes are cozy, helping cats keep warm, especially when they are snugly curled up in them.

Cat taking a nap.

Taking a nap. by Shutterstock.

Sinks are ideal spots for keeping cool during hot summer days. An added bonus is that most sinks are perfectly sized and shaped for a cat’s comfortable fit, and they’re kept cool by the porcelain. Another benefit to sinks is the view. Kitties can peek over the top, checking out what’s going on around them, while they remain relatively unobserved by the other residents.

Sinks are cool places to hang out in.

Sinks are cool places to hang out in. Photo by Shutterstock.

Safety and security

Basic survival instincts influence where cats choose to hang out. Each is an individual. Their personalities and histories along with the environment dictate their choices of safe places.

Kitties are sometimes found sequestered in closets or under beds and sofas. They’re also found lounging high up, such as on the top of book shelves, refrigerators, cat trees, and cabinets. These areas are away from other animals, babies, and stressful household activities. Another benefit is that cats feel they are not easily detected, while at the same time they can check out what is going on around them.

Cat, safe in a closet

Feeling safe in the closet. Photo by Shutterstock.

Tight, confined spaces promote secure feelings for a couple of reasons. They help some cats feel unassailable, protected by the tight sides of the container. The sides can act like armor — shielding them from predators and adversaries. Usually cats will position themselves so that they face out — easier to defend themselves if attacked or threatened.

Boxes also help reduce stress. Although all cats benefit from having access to them, new adoptees as well as those in potentially stressful situations are greatly helped when there are boxes they can retreat to. A 2014 study conducted on shelter cats in the Netherlands found that cats who had access to boxes weren’t as stressed, got used to their surroundings quicker, and had more interest in hobnobbing with people than kitties who didn’t have boxes to hide in.

Cats like boxes for a number of reasons. by Shutterstock.

Cats like boxes for a number of reasons. Photo by Shutterstock.

Hierarchy

Cats have legitimate social reasons for occupying high areas such as the tops of armoires, book shelves, and refrigerators. Hanging out on elevated spots communicates to other residents their status in the flexible hierarchy.

It’s easy to spot kitties who temporarily hold high status positions. They are usually the ones relaxing on the highest shelves. The others, occupying lower shelves, are lower in the feline hierarchy. It’s not permanent — hierarchies are flexible. They change depending on a number of factors, including the health of the cats, time of day, and who else is around. Cats room share and time share. One might be king of the mountain in one room, while another enjoys an elevated status in another.

In multi-cat households, where cats perch indicate their status in the changing hierarchy.

In multicat households, the places cats perch indicates their status in the changing hierarchy. Photo by Marilyn Krieger.

Attention seeking

Cats sometimes will hang out in strategic places for the sole purpose of soliciting attention from their favorite people. Usually these spots are on or directly in front of their people. These kitties are attention-seekers.

Attention seekers excel at finding places to spend time that annoy and inconvenience their people. They often relax on books and magazines while their owners attempt to read them and they will stand directly in front of computer monitors. Keyboards are popular with attention seekers too. Although they don’t look comfortable to stretch out on, the unpleasantness is negligible, if it means getting attention.

It is not unusual for owners to inadvertently reinforce the irritating behaviors by giving the kitties what they seek — attention. Attention comes in many forms including petting; kissing; and being talked to, picked up, and placed on the floor. It doesn’t take long for attention seekers to figure out how to get what they seek — attention from their favorite people.

Cats often hangout on keyboards in order to get attention.

Cats often hangout on keyboards in order to get attention. by Shutterstock.

Be aware that cats, seeking warmth and security, sometimes find places to nap that aren’t safe. Tragic accidents can happen. Keep your kitties out of danger by checking dryers before turning them on, looking under adjustable and motorized furniture, and checking other areas that are potential hazards.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More!  focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods.  Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.  She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.