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The Science of Sleep, According to a Cat

Not into cuddling? Too bad — they’re spending the night.

by Elizabeth Geier
April 1, 2021
kitten sleeping on top of person

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If you can learn anything from a cat, it’s the science of sleep. They inspired catnaps but can actually catch up to 16 hours a day of Zs. So, did we get spooning all wrong? Cats seem to think that sleeping atop their person is the most comfortable position. Sure, it may provide a little pressure therapy the way a weighted blanket swaddles you into slumber, but if your cat is literally weighing you down, here’s why and what you can do about it.

Warmth

Your cat’s cold and you’re warm. End of story. “Several studies in recent years have shown that cats actually do enjoy the company of people,” says Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM. “So it’s fair to say that cats will cuddle up to their owners for closeness, warmth, and safety.” You might notice that your cat sleeps right on top of you more often in the winter. Street cats huddle up to share body heat — when they’re not scrapping. This also explains why solo cats curl up like donuts to sleep. Your cat’s normal body temperature is higher than yours (102 degrees!) but if you run hot and need some breathing room, it’s worth investing in a low-wattage heated bed or a self-warming one that absorbs and reflects your cat’s own body heat.

Height

Stomach-sleepers: does your cat curl up on your butt at night? Don’t worry, it’s not weird. If professional cuddlers are a thing (they are), then don’t blame your cat for looking at you like a giant body pillow. There’s also the elevation aspect to consider. In the wild, most members of the feline family hide in trees to spot predator and prey alike from a better vantage point, so it’s in a domestic cat’s DNA to feel safer in high places. Your bed is higher than the ground, and you are higher still. So naturally, your cat will choose the heated, elevated perch — that would be you. If you want the little monkey off your back, buy the tallest cat tree you can find. 

Affection (or possession)

Does your cat turn on the charm at bedtime? That affectionate head-bumping thing they do is called ‘head bunting’ and cats use it to exchange scents with family members. You may not boast specialized scent glands in your forehead, but your cat will still rub their head against yours to pick up your smell and leave theirs behind. Did we just make it weird? Really, it’s a bonding experience so enjoy it for what it is. On the other hand, if your cat skips the sentiment and unamorously plops down to sleep on your head, they may be claiming you as their territory, which has the potential to escalate to spraying urine around the house and stalking other family members. Such territorial behavior should not be rewarded (with the right to sleep on said head).

Habit

It was cute when your tiny kitten cozied up in the nook of your neck to sleep. Now you’ve got a 15-pound cat to bench-press with each breath. “Your kitten may continue to sleep on top of you as an adult because they’ve determined that the warmest and safest place is with you,” says Dr. Pendergrass. Cats are creatures of habit so wriggling out of this routine won’t be easy...but is that what you really want?

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Elizabeth Geier

Elisabeth Geier is a writer, teacher, and animal advocate with extensive pet handling experience and a soft spot for bully breeds and big orange tabbies.