We all know that cats are prone to all sorts of eccentric behaviours… But as independent, small time carnivores, why do they seem to love sitting on us?! Especially people who don’t seem quite so fond of them? Our vet nurse blogger Robyn looks into the surprisingly complex social behaviour of cats…
Table of contents
The ancestry of cats
Pet cats retain many behaviours of their wild ancestor, Felis lybica, the African wildcat. The association between cats and people began about 10,000 years ago (much less time than with dogs, thought to be between 20-40 thousand years ago!) as a mutually beneficial relationship. Cats were attracted to the rodents that would eat harvested grain, giving the cats a food supply while preserving the grain stores for human use. This mutually beneficial relationship required no modification or genetic selection of the cat’s innate behaviour.
Despite the cat’s popularity as a companion animal, little is known about its bond and relationship with owners
You may wonder, as these feline friends can often be very aloof, why they sit on you so much. The answer is, we don’t really know but we can certainly hypothesise some concepts. Let’s try to look at the science behind these concepts too; not just make wild guesses as to why you are currently stuck on the sofa because you don’t want to disturb your cat.
What does the research say?
One study investigated a few principal component analyses and reduced the items to four factors including the “cat’s need for owner proximity”. The study identified three groups of owners with two of these each sub-divided into two. Those cats that like to sit on you fell into the following category ‘The “co-dependent” and “friendship” relationship were characterized by an emotionally invested owner but differed in the cat’s acceptance of others and need to maintain owner proximity.’
So, for these cats that seem to fall in the ‘friendship’ group – why do they choose to sit on us? Well, it could be down to a number of reasons including:
- Humans – Animal Bond
Human – animal bond and Companionship
A survey showing 55% of cat-owning ‘millennials’, the generation typically defined as being born between 1981 and 1996, consider their felines not only as family members but also as children; so are clearly looking for a close bond to their pet cat. Therefore, socialisation to human beings clearly is important for cats that live in our homes. One study found that single cats tended to stay closer to owners for longer periods of time, And they have more interactions with owners than did multiple cats. It is very possible that your cat is sitting on you because of this close bond and companionship.
Well, as much as we like to think our cats just like us, it is very possible that your cat is sitting on you because your legs are warm.
One study looked at the macroenvironment for cats. The macroenvironment refers to the cat’s housing space and its surroundings and includes factors such as the thermoregulatory environment. Although the thermoregulatory environment exerts a major influence on animal welfare, cats may be unable to express temperature regulating behaviours because of a lack of resources available to them to do so. And often the thermoneutral zone of the species is not adequately considered in their housing. For example, the thermoneutral zone for domestic cats is 30–38°C.
This study suggested providing opportunities for cats to behaviorally thermoregulate such as provision of warm bedding or heating elements such as SnuggleSafe® that will enable them to more easily cope with the environment. However, in the absence of these your cat may choose a nice warm lap to snuggle on.
Many cats will sit on you and enjoy grooming. Feral cats also have been seen to engage in a variety of other social and signalling behaviours, including allogrooming (grooming each other) or allorubbing (usually using head, flank, and tail) as a possible signal of “friendly” intent, and lying in physical contact during rest; like if they sit on you.
Rubbing on human beings and human petting of cats resembles typical cat to cat social behaviour in feral colonies. However, problems can arise if human beings interpret rubbing as seeking further interaction when the cat may be using it only as a passing greeting. Or if people pet in areas that usually are not allogroomed by other cats, such as along the back, on the tail or at its base, or on the belly. Although some cats welcome this additional allogrooming, others do not. So if your cat comes to sit on you and appears to be welcoming grooming and then tells you off… it may be because of this.
In feral colonies, olfactory communication involves glands on the head (temporal, submental, and circumoral) being rubbed against objects and other cats. Observation of placement and timing of this behaviour has led to the theory that molecules are deposited that identify aspects of the colony and label specific individuals. So it could be that your cat is sitting on you, rubbing their face as part of this behaviour.
So, in response to a question where we can say we don’t really know the answer, I hope we have managed to cover the science behind some possible explanations as to why your cat always sits on your knee. As all cats are incredibly individual, it can be up to you to make up your mind as to which reason it may be!