Do domestic cats sit on your lap for warmth or love?

It’s the early hours of the morning at about 5 AM and the temperature inside my home is about 22°C. This is a pleasant temperature. I’m in bed dictating this article. My cat is on my legs where he likes to be at this time of the morning. He’s been there for about 10 minutes. He’s just jumped up and is now lying on the hard floor to cool. And now he is just left the home through the cat flap.

The primary reason why domestic cats go on a person's lap is for warmth in the secondary reason is to be in contact with their caregiver
The primary reason why domestic cats go on a person’s lap is for warmth in the secondary reason is to be in contact with their caregiver. The picture is by Michael using Canva.
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The reason why he jumped up from the bed was because it was too hot. He didn’t need to be warmed up by my legs. This, to me, strongly indicates that he was mainly there to keep warm. That clearly cannot be the only reason but judging by his behaviour it was probably the primary reason.

The other, of course, is that he wants to be next to me. But there is a balance between these two objectives: to be with their human caregiver and companion and be close to them and, indeed, in contact with them and to feel the warmth from their human caregiver’s legs and body in general.

And the same would apply to a cat jumping up onto your lap when you are watching the television. I have a strong sense that although both of these objectives are in mind when they do it, the first objective is to seek warmth.

60/40 split?

If one were to divide up those two objectives, I would argue that it is 60% to keep warm and 40% to keep company. And that’s quite a “commercial decision” by a domestic cat.

Cat’s commercial decision making

But they can be quite commercial in their decision making. It’s not all lovey-dovey and a need to display love and affection towards their caregiver. The domestic cat lives with us because there’s mutual benefit.

If you go back to the very beginnings of cat domestication, the arrangement was a commercial one. The cat had a ready menu of rodents to catch around the barn in protecting the grain and the human had a companion and an animal who protected the grain. It was a two-way street in which both parties benefited.

Marriages

To be perfectly frank, marriages also very commercial very often. So, we can’t blame the cat for being like this. Marriage often comes down to a businesslike arrangement almost in which both parties are friends. It is better financially for both parties if they are married. Many women marry rich men for entirely commercial reasons. And the man accepts it because he realises that he is buying a companion in effect. But the relationship works at least for several years until the woman divorces the man and gets her multi-million-pound settlement! That’s not to criticise the woman because this is a man’s world which is unfair.

People mainly adopt cats for selfish reasons

And people adopt cats for company. Perhaps it is fair to say that most often people adopt cats or purchase cats because they are thinking of themselves and how a cat can benefit their life. Sometimes they go to a rescue center and adopt a cat to save the cat but these are quite rare people. Adopting a cat is most often a selfish decision on the part of the human.

Don’t blame the cat for being selfish

The point I am making is that you can’t blame the cats are being selfish either in simply wanting to keep warm and be fed. But in conclusion, I am drawn to the belief that domestic cats sit on one’s lap primarily for warmth and secondarily to be in contact with their human caregiver as it is reassuring for them. Ultimately, these are selfish reasons. We fully accept them because ultimately, too, our reasons for having a cat in the home are selfish.

Heated fake lap supports my assessment

Fake lap for clingy cat
Fake lap for clingy cat. Photo: Alex and Rebecca May.

In an article I wrote some time ago, a cat owner built a fake lap for their tortoiseshell cat to sit on because they didn’t want their cat to be a lap cat all the time as they had work to do. But interestingly they ensured that the fake lap was heated! This, too, points to the fact that the heat emitted from a person’s lap is the number one concern for a domestic cat.

People working at their computer

It’s a well-known phenomenon on that domestic cats like to join their owner when they are at a laptop or desktop computer. Sometimes the cat lies over the keyboard.

Cat on laptop
Cat on laptop. Photo: Tom Harries on Twitter. This cat seeks company, interactions and the warmth. But in my view the last item is the most important.

The main reason why they do it is because the keyboard is warm and the area generally where the computer is will be warmer than the environment around it because computers emit heat. I think this also supports my assessment.

Assessing a cat’s character by looking at history

The best way to assess a cat’s character is to look at the history of the domestic cat. That might seem boring but it’s the best way. And the domestic cat is a domesticated North African wildcat. That tells the complete story. The wildcat ancestors lived in a warm environment. The domestic cat still seeks that kind of environment as an ideal.

Bodega cats

Often you will see New York’s Bodega cats sitting on top of the shop’s till because it’s the warmest place in the shop! Perhaps the shops are quite chilly sometimes because the door is open to encourage customers to come in. The cat seeks warmth and the cash till emits it!

Bodega cat enjoys the heat from a machine on the shop's counter
Bodega cat enjoys the heat from a machine on the shop’s counter. The photograph was in the public domain in my opinion.

Another indication that the domestic cat is eternally seeking warmth if where they live is sometimes on the chilly side or just plain cold.

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