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Why Do Cats Sleep Where They Do?

Three behavior experts explain why cats prefer raggedy cardboard boxes to the fancy cat bed.

 |  Nov 5th 2013  |   11 Contributions


The day before I adopted my cat, Mimosa, I went to Petco and picked up the usual assortment of new-cat supplies: Litter box, bowl, a few toys, and, of course, a cat bed. Once I got Mims home and she'd stopped hiding under the bathroom cabinet (which took all of, ooh, two hours), it became apparent that she saw the cat bed not as something to sleep in, but as a plaything: Her only interest in it was to run up and slide along in it. Oh well, I thought, it was only ten bucks.

Foolishly -- and possibly smitten with a case of new kitten optimism -- I went back to the store and bought her a bigger and better and plusher cat bed. This one she slept in approximately twice before completely ignoring it. I've had cats before and know about their finicky sleeping spots, so at this point I left Mims to her own snoozing devices.

Petco cat bed number two in a rare moment of use.

But it did make me wonder: Everyone seems to have an anecdote about how their cat chooses to sleep in a strange and bizarre place, but why do they select such spots? Is there any theory or science behind it? I decided to ask a bunch of cat experts to see if there were any common rationale behind a cat's chosen sleeping spots.

I started with asking feline science guy John Bradshaw, the author of the recent book Cat Sense, about a classic conundrum: Why do cats prefer a cardboard box to an actual cat bed?

"Well, it's been shown that if you put a cardboard box in a cat shelter, nine times out of ten the cat will go straight into the box and stay there," he told me. "Actually, in British Columbia the S.P.C.A. have a sophisticated version of this, which is a cardboard box that goes into the cage where the cat is staying and then it becomes a carry case for the new owner to take it home in. It gives the cat continuity. So we know that they really like going into cardboard boxes, and we know that it reduces their stress levels and makes them feel more comfortable."

Behold the multi-tasking cat nap

John continued, "Cats in the wild are always looking for nooks and crannies to rest in because what they want is to basically have five sides out of six protected. That's the ideal position for a cat to be in. So a cardboard box is a great place to be 'cause for five sides out of six nobody can get at you and you can keep an eye on the sixth one."

This idea of safety when snoozing makes sense: It's why cats are also said to prefer high up places, as if defending their fort from troops of marauding enemies. Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant, also mentioned the benefits of the corrugated cove when I asked her why cats pick certain places to sleep. She also added that cats will rub up against a box to mark it as their territory: "It's a new object and it's a really cool place to hide out and play in, so the first thing they want to do is mark and claim it."

This seems like sound cat science, but it doesn't explain another quirk of the feline at rest: their tendency to switch up spots every three or four months. If their trusty old cardboard box is so snug and secure, why move?

"There are some theories about that," said Marilyn. "Perhaps it doesn't smell as good as it should. Cats are extremely clean, and if something becomes soiled they don't want to spend time on it. Or maybe if the weather changes and the sun moves, the cat isn't getting the same sunlight as it was before."

I'd never considered cats as seasonal sleepers before, but why not? After all, in the months of grey skies the cat might realize that chasing sunbeams is fruitless and instead look to prioritize another aspect of their sleeping spot. (Marilyn also mentioned that if you want a cat to sleep in a specific bed but it doesn't seem interested, then it's always worth simply moving the bed to a new place.)

Happiness is a snug cat

The cleanliness factor also makes some sense and might explain why Mims suddenly started to sleep on the bed once I got a new duvet cover, but not before. It's not that the older duvet was dirty -- the new one just has a box-fresh allure. It's the same as laying down a new blanket. Although a friend's cat, Maxi, may disprove this rule: After his owner made him a special cat bed out of foam, he ignored it for three months until it was eventually put out by the door to be added to the garbage. At which point -- yep! -- he started to sleep on it.

Maxi always suspected his owner of taking his cashmere sweater

Ultimately, the inherent whimsy of a cat might trump most theories about why a cat chooses to sleep in a certain place, but that doesn't mean you can't hedge your bets by sticking to a classic formula.

Tracie Hotchner, host of the Cat Crazy radio show, told me an anecdote that she says sums up the cat sleeping spot dilemma. "I was doing a book signing in a pet store in San Francisco," she recalls. "I asked the owner, 'Why don't you have any cat beds in your store? I mean, you have so many dog beds!' She said, 'You know, we have tried over the years to have cat beds, but the truth is, cardboard boxes and cashmere sweaters is what cats like to sleep on. Get a cardboard box and a cashmere sweater and you're good to go. We do not sell cat beds.' That was it, and I've never forgotten it."

Tracie then mentioned a very well-off acquaintance who lived in a swanky mansion in Bel Air in California. True to the tale, she had a cat who slept in a cardboard box full of cashmere sweaters under the bed. "The cat would have slept anywhere in that giant home but that's all it wanted -- to be on a pile of sweaters." So, there you have it: the official secret to a good cat nap is cardboard and cashmere.

About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world's foremost expert on rappers' cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it's not quite what you think it is.

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