Here’s a scenario that’s all too common among cat owners: you get a new cat and shower it with love and attention, excited for it to cuddle up in bed with you at night. Then bedtime rolls around and the cat is nowhere to be found. You go to see where it could be and find it fast asleep on the couch, alone.
Or maybe your child wants to take a nap with the cat but the cat would rather catch some z’s with your spouse. This fickle behavior can lead to a lot of hurt feelings and wondering where you went wrong. Why does the cat only want to sleep with certain people?
Cats are highly independent creatures who form strong habits and routines. This includes their sleeping preferences – and preferred bedmates. Let’s take a look at feline behavior and find out how cats choose where, and with whom, to sleep, as well as what you can do to alter these patterns.
Survival Instinct: Where Cats Like to Sleep
Cats are known as some of the sleepiest animals around, spending up to 16 hours a day getting shuteye. Kittens, though rambunctious while awake, sleep even more: around 20 hours a day! The most active hours for a cat are those around dawn and dusk; the rest of the day is mostly spent asleep.
The wild ancestors of today’s housecats shared this sleep schedule, which provided them with excellent hunting opportunities, but also put them at risk. Sleeping in broad daylight would leave them highly visible and wide open to attack. Nighttime naps came with reduced visibility but also with a host of new nocturnal predators.
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Making the Bed
To keep safe during their extended periods of rest, cats developed a number of different strategies. Some took to the trees, aided in the climb by their sharp claws and powerful legs. Others sought shelter in caves and large dens, which offered protection from both the elements and other animals.
We can see these same behaviors in domesticated cats today. Owners regularly find their cats napping atop bookshelves and cat trees, finding comfort high up in these makeshift watchtowers. Few attackers could reach them at these great heights, plus they’re able to quickly survey a large area from their vantage points.
Security can also be found in small places, such as cardboard boxes or dresser drawers that have been left open. Tucked safely away out of view, cats can finally close their eyes and drift off to sleep without worry. Some people believe that being in a snug space reminds the cat of being in the womb, which instills a sense of maternal comfort that’s very conducive to falling asleep.
A Matter of Preference
Some cats exhibit a strong preference for sleeping very high up, while others never venture that high and tend to sleep in more accessible places. Some enjoy plush padded beds while others appreciate a firmer surface with more support. The vast majority of cats, however, share two sleeping preferences: they don’t like to sleep on the ground, and they won’t sleep around anyone they don’t trust.
So assuming that everyone in the house has a bed that’s off the ground, how does the cat choose whose to sleep in? It’s largely a matter of earning trust and treating the cat in a way that makes it feel comfortable. All that takes is a little understanding of how cats bond with humans and how they interpret our behaviors.
Appeasing the Feline: How to Build Trust with a Cat
A Taste of Bribery
Even the most skittish cats will open up a little if you present them with a meal. No matter how aloof they act, eventually they give in to the irresistible lure of food.
If a cat sees that you’re the one providing it with its stomach’s desire, it’ll begin to understand that you’re trustworthy. After all, how could a bad person be the source of such deliciousness?
In many cases, a cat ends up bonding with the person who feeds it most often. The strongest bond provides the greatest comfort, and since the cat will only sleep where it’s comfortable, it often ends up falling asleep in bed with its favorite food-bearer. The distance from a cat’s stomach to its heart is very short, indeed.
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When a cat decides who to sleep with, prior treatment is taken into consideration. Cats tend to have very firm boundaries when it comes to personal space and sensory input. Violating these boundaries breaks trust and ensures that the cat will look elsewhere for a sleeping spot, so the best way to get a cat to sleep with you is to treat it with respect from day one.
Understanding each cat’s individual boundaries requires a little trial and error and a lot of patience. The cat should be the one to make the first moves, at least until you get to know each other better. Don’t corner it for a belly rub or try to pick it up; let the cat come to you and let it leave when it wants to.
Picking a cat up and putting it on your bed in an attempt to get it to sleep with you is almost certainly a bad idea. The cat will associate your bed with being picked up and moved against its will, and it will probably avoid your bed in the future. It may seem simple, but the best way to get a cat to sleep in your bed is to leave the decision entirely to the cat.
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A Gentle Hand
Every cat is different, but most of them share several preferences when it comes to being touched. Being aware of these preferences and using them as starting points for your feline interactions will go a long way towards gaining a cat’s trust and getting it to curl up on your bed.
Most cats love being scratched behind the ears, on the cheeks and under the chin. Conversely, they tend to not enjoy having their paws and tail played with.
Belly rubs are sometimes enjoyed but require a preexisting trust and an invitation, such as rolling over and showing you its stomach. It’s a vulnerable area and touching it uninvited is likely to result in bites and scratches, plus a disinclination to let you near it in the future.
If your cat knows that you know how to pet it the way it likes, it’s far more likely to seek you out above all others. Often this means coming to you at bedtime for a “good night” petting before curling up and falling asleep by your side.
A Difficult Choice: When All Else is Equal
It Takes Two
So everyone has a comfy bed and a solid bond with the cat – how, then, does it choose who to sleep with? It may come down to the humans’ sleeping habits. Sometimes partners get along great until it’s time to go to sleep, and it’s no different with cats.
Someone who tosses and turns a lot in their sleep is going to have a hard time keeping a cat in bed. Any disturbance could wake it up and send it off in search of a more peaceful place to rest. People who snore may not appeal to the cat either, since cats’ hearing remains fully active even during sleep.
Your sleep schedule plays a role in your cat’s decision as well. If you head off to bed late, your cat may already have dozed off for the night. Once you get comfy in bed, you don’t want to move, and neither does your cat, so if your schedules don’t align you may end up sleeping alone.
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Loner at Heart
Sometimes, despite all your best efforts, your cat would just rather sleep by itself. Maybe it likes being able to stretch out on the couch without bumping into you or getting nudged out of the way. Or it might prefer the cat bed that smells just like it, finding extra comfort in that familiar scent.
Don’t take it personally if, after all is said and done, your cat still won’t sleep with you. We all have our little preferences that we can’t quite explain, and so do our cats. It doesn’t mean that your cat isn’t comfortable with you or doesn’t trust you; it’s just another unique aspect of your special pet.
"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
-- Terry Pratchett