A purring cat next to you on the bed can be so cosy but sharing your sleeping arrangements with your pet is not for everyone. Read on to discover the dos and don’ts…
If you’ve ever woken up and found yourself squished into a quarter of the bed, while your cat sprawls luxuriously in acres of duvet, you may have wondered if you should let your kitty share your space at night.
On the one hand, there is something so comforting about a snoozing cat by your side. On the other, there may be a price to be paid in terms of poor quality or even loss of sleep.
In our house we love having our cat Rita sleep on the bed at night, but the downside is that there comes a point in the early hours when Rita wakes up and requires attention — and makes her feelings known.
When this happens, she wants a companion to come downstairs with her, put a few extra morsels of food in her dish (even though there is plenty in there already), open the cat flap, or simply demonstrate to her that it was already open, and well, just generally be available. This person is not me. But for my partner Allan this is a regular routine — and it’s probably too far gone now to change the situation.
“What we know about behaviour, whatever the species, is that what gets reinforced gets repeated and so what you reward, you’re going to see more of,” says Cat Advocacy Programme Manager at International Cat Care Linda Ryan.
So, it may be too late for Allan, but what if you have decided you don’t want your cat on the bed, perhaps because it is simply too disruptive to your sleep or because you have allergies? How do you stop a cat settling next to you for the night, when that’s what they have decided to do?
Linda, who is a certificated clinical animal behaviourist and registered veterinary nurse, explained that trying to get your cat to not do something is not the right starting point.
“For me as a behaviourist and a trainer, it’s always the wrong question. We never ask ‘how do we make the cat not do anything we don’t want?’ We ask ‘what would we like the cat to do?’
“If you simply shut the bedroom door, you’re probably going to end up with a very frustrated cat scratching at the carpet, scratching at the door, and the humans are not going to sleep so nobody is going to win from that situation.”
Instead, Linda recommends creating another place for the cat to sleep. Somewhere so tempting that the cat won’t be able to resist it and forgets all thoughts of joining you on the bed.
She suggests creating the most comfortable bed possible, with snuggly materials and perhaps even a heat pad, and, if possible, put it somewhere high off the ground, which is something cats like. If possible, create several places like this so your cat has some choice.
But whatever you decide, it’s important to be consistent with it. It’s no good letting your cat sleep on your bed most of the time and then deciding on certain days that you don’t want them to do that. They won’t understand what’s going on.
“What’s very important is that we provide our cat with very clear expectations, so we should be consistent with whatever we decide to do,” says cat behaviour and welfare scientist, and Your Cat columnist Dr Lauren Finka.
Sharing our bed
So, why do cats want to sleep on the bed with us?
Lauren says: “Many sociable cats will really just like to be with their owners when they are sleeping. You’re lying down, you’re predictable, you’re calm. The bed is very soft, it’s obviously a valued resource because it’s something that we spend a lot of time in, and it smells like us, so I think this is very appealing for cats. It’s also a time when we are consistently, predictably just still and quiet.”
Lauren explains that for particularly human-focused cats it’s also a welcome chance to spend more time with their owner — especially if they have been out during the day.
Some people worry that you shouldn’t let a cat sleep on your bed because it allows them to think that they are top in the hierarchy of the home — an idea that has come from perceptions about dogs. But this needn’t be a concern says cat behaviourist and Behaviour Manager at Cats Protection Nicky Trevorrow.
“It’s a common misconception for people to think that cats have hierarchies. The truth is that they don’t have a hierarchy with other cats, let alone people,” she says.
“So just in case there’s anyone thinking you shouldn’t have a cat on your bed because it will get ideas of grandeur and dominance, it’s completely not true, and it isn’t true for a dog either, as demonstrated by the latest research.”
Set up your cat with several sleeping spots around the house.
Another aspect of cat sleeping behaviour is that they naturally want to choose different sleeping places at different times.
Nicky says: “It’s interesting for cat owners to know that they rotate their sleeping place, and this comes back from African wildcat behaviour. Cats will need a multitude of sleeping places and then they rotate around them.”
So, if your cat has abandoned a place that they used to go to for a nap, they may well return to it in time. Having said that, Nicky recommends taking note of changes in sleeping preferences as they could indicate a health issue. A cat that abruptly starts sleeping on the floor having always favoured a high bed, may be doing so because it hurts to jump up, for example.
If you like your cat to join you on the bed it’s certainly a cosy and affectionate experience and while cats enjoy the pleasure of snuggling on a big, soft bed, there could be more to it than just physical comfort. Nicky says: “I think a lot of it is because they’re bonded to their owners and they consider them to be in the same social group as them. So, I think it is nice that they are choosing to be with us.”
Why do some cats ignore you all day and then snuggle up to you at night?
For some cats the only time they want to be near their human is after bedtime and so people may find a cat that completely ignores them all day is suddenly by their side when the lights go out.
If this is the case in your household, it could be that your cat wants to spend time with you, but that you are being a bit too full-on with them during the day.
Cat behaviour and welfare scientist, and Your Cat columnist Dr Lauren Finka explains that while some cats let you know right away if you’re doing something they don’t like, others put up with a certain amount of unwanted cuddling and picking-up for a quiet life. In either case, they may tend to avoid you if they think there is a risk of you interacting with them in a way they don’t like and can’t control. Spending time with you when you are asleep, however, feels much more comfortable for them.
“I think sleeping is the perfect opportunity for the cat to decide and choose how they interact,” says Lauren, “and of course the cat knows there’s no social pressure, they know they’re not going to be picked up, they’re not going to be touched in areas they don’t like being touched, so the cat is completely in control of how much exposure there is.”
That means they can adjust their level of contact to suit them, whether that is keeping a bit more distance by curling up on the end of the bed or snuggling right in close next to you.
If you’ve let your cat in, it’s difficult to then stop.
No two are the same
“For anyone who does not have much feline experience, cats vary,” says Tim Edwards, of Leicestershire, who has owned cats with very different bedtime habits. “My old cat Casper was very good at yowling his head off and disrupting everybody and everything at dawn when wanting food. He
ended up sleeping in the kitchen in a bed with all his food toys and other bits, and the radio on to keep him company. He would sometimes find his way onto the bed, with or without me, in daytime. With age and wonky legs, we got him a step to help him up and down.
“Tigger, however, as his name implies is active, bouncy, and sociable. He has never had a bed of his own and sleeps with me every night, all night… well more or less. The need to go out and prowl can interfere occasionally. He follows me to bed and is then quite happy to snore his head off curled up on whatever warm patch he finds until way past 10am. He loves a cuddle and has this slam dunk habit of finding a patch close by then keeling over straight into me.
“Both equally adorable, but in different ways.”
Owners being asleep gives cats chance to interact with us in a calm way.
It’s important to take safety into account when letting a cat sleep with its humans. Cat Advocacy Programme Manager at International Cat Care Linda Ryan says: “From a safety point of view for the human and the cat, of course if you had somebody for example who had allergies to cats that would not be a safe situation or if you had perhaps a young child or baby, or a young kitten, there is the potential for physical damage to either one.”
It is important to make sure that you are not putting your cat at risk by letting them sleep on the bed. Linda says: “If you have a little kitten in the bed, you can definitely accidentally squash them or if you have an elderly cat and you accidentally knock them off the bed and they had arthritis, that can be painful. So, there are some considerations that we need to think about in terms of making sure that everybody is safe.”
Linda explains that you should also make sure that your cat is not carrying any conditions that can be transmitted to humans and if they are, to get them treated before letting the cat sleep on the bed.