Why does my cat like to sit and lie on paper?
Have you ever left the Sunday newspaper open on the sofa to return and find your cat sitting on it? Has a piece of printer paper ever fluttered off your desk to the floor only to become a “bed” for your cat? Have you ever dropped a piece of mail by the front door and later found your cat sitting atop it like a throne?
Why does my cat sit on plastic bags? Why do cats always sit on things?
Or perhaps it’s not just paper your cat loves to sit on. Many cat owners find that their cats will lie down on a plastic bag left out on the counter. Paper bags are a cat favorite, too – not just for hiding in, but for sitting right on top.
It’s not a coincidence. It’s not just that the paper was there, right where the cat wanted to sit anyway.
Any cat owner will tell you this: if you were to put a cat in an empty warehouse with nothing but a single piece of paper on the floor, the cat will walk from one end of the warehouse to the other just to sit on it.
Some (slightly questionable) theories about why cats sit on paper
Cats like to lie on things, it’s true. And there are lots of reasonably credible theories about why cats like to lie on things. Cat lovers speculate about why cats sit on paper, and perhaps there is some truth to conjecture. Let’s look at some of the theories ordinary observers of cats offer for why cats sit on paper:
Cats sit on paper to get your attention
I actually like this theory. Cats are notorious attention seekers. They persistently meow until you offer them a treat. They scratch at the closed bedroom door until you let them in. They knock things off the table when they’re sure you can see them do it. They bring toys and other objects and drop them at your feet.
Cat observers often note that cats sit on paper when it’s the paper that’s getting all the attention. If a newspaper or a magazine holds a cat owner’s attention for too long, the cat may pointedly sit on it, as if to say, “stop looking at that and start looking at me.”
The idea that a cat may sit on paper to get your attention is a good one, but it doesn’t explain why a cat will sit on a piece of paper when it’s not the object of your attention, or when they don’t appear to be seeking your attention at that moment. A cat that immediately curls up to nap on that square of paper is clearly not in an attention-seeking mode.
Cats sit on paper to “claim it”
Cats are territorial and they do like to mark objects, people, and other cats in their territory with their own scent. Cats have scent glands in various places around their bodies that produce a fatty substance containing pheromones that can be transferred by rubbing against the thing they wish to mark. The marked object now smells less like whatever it used to smell like and more like the cat. It is possible that a cat who discovers something interesting and new in her environment – a piece of junk mail on the hardwood floor – is sitting on it to claim it.
What gives this theory less credibility is that sitting on an object is not typically how cats transfer their scent. Have you ever seen your cat rubbing herself against the corner of the sofa? Scent marking is more of an active behavior than merely sitting on paper would suggest.
If you notice your cat kneading the paper with her paws as opposed to merely sitting on the paper or laying atop it for a nap, then it would suggest a more active, purposeful transfer of scent to the paper and give more credence to this theory.
Cats sit on paper because they like different sensations
There’s a fear-aggressive cat named Rory at the shelter where I volunteer every week. Although she has the run of the shelter, she has a room of her own to which she can retreat when she needs some peace. I’m charged with socializing Rory and I sometimes sit with her in her special room. I always bring my pocketbook, which is made of a canvas material, and, as shy as she is, she can’t help but to emerge from whatever hiding spot she was tucked away in, to touch this unusually textured bag with her face and paws.
We’ll never know for sure, but it’s possible that a cat who sits on a piece of paper on the floor may just be looking for a change of texture from the tile, or carpet, or concrete that he’s used to. Unfortunately, while we can draw our own conclusions about a cat’s motivation to behave in a certain way, this particular theory has no real science to back it up.
Cats sit on paper because it is warmer than the floor
Maybe you have cold, hard tile all over your house. Even a thin piece of printer paper would help insulate against that icy floor.
Why would a cat care about a cold floor? I share my home with a Great Pyrenees dog, which is a giant, fluffy breed whose ancestors hail from the coldest mountaintops in Europe. We have dog beds all over our house, but my Pyr will seek out the coldest, hardest floor to sleep on every night, even in winter.
Cats are not like my Pyr. Cats are always cold in our houses because their thermoneutral zone is much higher than ours. The thermoneutral zone of a living thing is the temperature at which it does not have to expend any extra energy to stay warm or keep cool. We keep our house at around 72 degrees. A cat’s thermoneutral zone is actually closer to 86 to 97 degrees, which means that our cats are cold all the time.
A piece of paper on the floor would be preferable, from the point of view of temperature for a cat, than a hard tile floor, and that makes the warmth theory very credible.
Where the warmth theory falls apart is when that piece of paper is not on a cold concrete or tile floor, but on a nice, warm floor, such as a carpet. A cat will just as readily sit on a piece of paper in warm, wall-to-wall carpeted living room, as she will in a room with a floor that is less cozy.
Cats sit on paper because it’s new and cats are drawn to novel things
Cats are curious creatures and they must check out any new object in their environment. It makes sense if that file folder wasn’t on the desktop yesterday that it must be explored today.
Where this particular theory falls apart is when the cat curls up on the file folder to take a little nap. A sleeping cat is not expressing curiosity. The initial exploration of that new piece of a paper on the floor might be the result of curiosity, but sitting and staying on the paper is not.
My favorite explanation for why cats like sitting on paper: it’s a kind of box, but without sides
A couple of years ago there a fad on social media with the hashtag #catsquare. Cat owners would outline a square on the floor with tape and watch, amazed, as their cats would settle themselves inside the square. It was as if the cats were drawn by some potent, magical force to the square, helpless against its power.
Famed animal behaviorist and veterinarian, Nicholas Dodman, wrote about this strange phenomenon in The Conversation in an article entitled, “Why can’t cats resist thinking inside the box?”
He reminds us about why cats are so drawn to boxes (for more information about cats and their love of cardboard boxes, read Science!), elaborating on one of the benefits of boxes for cats: they are tight spaces that force a cat to curl up.
“It’s just a fact of life that cats like to squeeze into small spaces where they feel much safer and more secure,” said Dodman.
Squishing into the tight space in a box might recall for an adult cat the feeling of closeness and contact that she felt as a kitten curled up in a nest with her mother and littermates.
Dodman and fellow researcher Temple Grandin, a scientist known for her work in developing systems which counteract stress in certain human and animal populations, conducted a study ("The effect of naltrexone on relaxation induced by flank pressure in pigs") on tight spaces that involved pigs. They believed that tight spaces might cause pigs’ brains to release endorphins – chemicals similar to opiates that relieve stress and pain.
Dodman and Grandin noticed that pigs who were gently squeezed in a chute relaxed. But pigs that were given a drug that blocked the endorphins did not relax in the chute. Maybe it’s the same for cats: their brains release endorphins when they can feel the edges of the box against their sides, and they feel safer and more relaxed.
What does this have to do with a “cat square” or piece of paper left on the floor?
Dodman theorizes that the cat square is like a very shallow box – it’s almost cozy and comfortable, but not quite. “The virtual box is not as good as the real thing, but is at least a representation of what might be,” he concludes, “if only there was a real square box to nestle in.”
So maybe the cat square and the paper on the floor are “virtual boxes” – offering cats a kind of abstract or imaginary sense of security and well being. It's a theory that makes sense.
If you'd like for your cat to have a real box to curl up into, consider this one: