10 min read

Why Does My Cat Lie On My Books?

I read in bed quite a bit. Books lean in precarious towers on my nightstand, and scatter the ground in an expression of triumph and minor sloth. But my cat is rarely interested in those books. For many years now, Bubba has only been interested in one book. The book I am currently reading.

When I place a book face-down on the bed -- to answer a phone call, say, or briefly leave the room -- I often come back to find him curled on top of it, as though that book were nothing but a tented sunning deck. Of course it's adorable to find your 16-year-old, beloved orange tabby snuggled up against the philosophical musings of William James, but there is one problem. Mainly: I was reading that.

What was going on here? Cats are mysterious creatures, and no one knows that better than Mieshelle Nagelschneider, cat behaviorist and author of "The Cat Whisperer." She specializes in decoding this kind of odd feline behavior. We spoke over the phone about Bubba's funny habit, the significance of a cat's survival instinct, and why any new coat left on the bed is going to end up with cat hair.

So, my cat's habit of lying on my books. Do you have any idea why he's doing this?

Cats are very territorial. They're really such great survivors. And one of their survival instincts is staking out their territorial rights on resources throughout the home. Like a perching and resting area. Nature is full of opportunity for them here. All those trees. So in the home, cats like to be elevated when they're resting and perching, as opposed to curling up on the floor. Though they do that, too. And I think this is something of yours that has significance, and he knows it. Anything that smells like the owner, it brings the cat closer. I wonder if you had friends over, and they were reading books, would he do the same thing?

I tried a similar experiment. I placed dummy books around the bed, books that I wasn't reading, but he never fell for it. He only wanted the book that had just been in my hands.

Interesting. I think he wants something that you've had. I do think cats look to us for what's important. We don't know what they're actually thinking, of course, but I suspect cats think of us in one of three ways: That we're their mate, or their caretaker, or that they're our caretaker. I tend to think they think of us as their caretakers, since we deliver them food, and anything the more dominant animal has, the cat wants a piece of that. Like when they rub up against us, they're getting our scent against them and it makes them feel safer. With any animal, but especially cats, you can boil down almost any behavior to a survival instinct. Even playing. It's the way they practice hunting.

When a cat curls up on something, are they looking to make their bellies warm or cool?

Warm. Definitely. I've heard stories of cats who hate each other, but they'll all sit on a heated tile floor together. It makes sense for a cat, whose inner temperature is about 102, to seek out warm places to keep the body temperature up. When I'm sick and I have the flu, my cats are over me. All seven of them. And I used to think, "Oh, they want me to feel well." No. They want to stay warm. So, it's possible that your cat is also going for the warmth of the book from your hands. And with a new book, unused, the cold could be shocking.

I notice when Bubba is lying on these books, he rubs his face against the edges. What's he doing? Does that just feel good?

That's facial marking. It's a friendly way to mark something, as opposed to spraying it. He's putting a soothing pheromone on it. People think negatively when I say cats are marking something, but he sees you reading those books and probably thinks there's something so important there, and oh gosh, we need to have those books as part of our survival opportunity, too. Cats are big on marked scent. If you see a pie chart of how a cat gathers information, it's 75 percent scent. Next is body language. Vocalization is very small. The meowing is really just to communicate with us.

It also seems like he's trying to keep me from paying attention to something else, like the way he walks across the keyboard when I'm typing. Why do cats demand attention like that?

Again, think about survival. Why would cats want to get our attention when we're on the phone or putting our focus elsewhere? Well, they might get worried. Attention is being taken away. Or they might be acting like the owner, doing what the owner does. I think they like us, too. Out in nature they have a big social repertoire with other cats. They hang out near each other for most of the day. But I think they also know the nesting time. This is the hour when we're resting and their owner isn't walking back and forth but just sitting there.

Part of this behavior seems to be any cat's interest in climbing on whatever is new in a room. I could have ten stacks of clothes lying around, but I place a new jacket on the bed, and my cat goes for that. How can you stop a cat from lying on a new jacket?

Hang up your coat. Because that is their instinct. If they sense something new, something with a strong odor, they will mark it. It helps calm them. I have a saying: You can take the cat out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the cat.