Why Do Cats Crave Warmth?

The cuddly science behind the heat-seeking tendencies of felines.

A tiny kitten cozies up on top of a radiator near a window. (Photo: Veera/Shutterstock)

Cat lovers know there's no greater joy than curling up on a cold day with a kitty in your lap. And while it's comforting to imagine that they cuddle with you because they love you, the catty truth is that they're using you. For your heat.

Sure, they certainly enjoy your companionship to some degree, but the real reason they like to snuggle is rooted in thousands of years of evolution.

Desert Ancestry

As descendants of ancient desert animals, domestic cats are hard-wired to thrive in toasty climates. With an average body temperature of 102 degrees Fahrenheit, cats living in cooler climates must compensate for their temperature-sensitivity. Some breeds have developed thick, fluffy coats as a result, but many others depend on external heat sources — like us — to stay warm.

That's why, when there's no cozy human lap to be found, it's not uncommon to find a cat lounging in a sunny windowsill, burrowing under a cozy blanket or even parking directly in front of a space heater.

Safety First

As adorable and funny as it is to see cats bundling up in front of a heat source, it's important to keep a careful eye on them to make sure they aren't hurting themselves. Being able to withstand high temperatures doesn't mean they can't get burned, and in many ways, they're often more susceptible to getting hurt due to the way their fur works.

As cat expert Pamela Merritt explains, "while their fur is insulating, this can work against them when they use our heat devices. They can cuddle up to something warm, not realize it is getting warmer, and their fur will keep them from noticing until it is quite hot."

Two cats keep warm in front of a space heater. (Photo: Les Orchard/Flickr)

To discourage your cat from relaxing too closely to a radiator or space heater, tempt him with a cozy blanket situated a safe (yet still warm!) distance away from the heat source. Or better yet, scoop him up in your arms and indulge in a bit of kitty cuddling ... That is, of course, after you take a cute photo of your cat basking in the artificial warmth, like these feline fanciers did:

Cat sprawled out in front of a space heater. (Photo: Lindsay Attaway/Flickr)
White cat snoozes on radiator in front of window. (Photo: Kim Woodbridge/Flickr)
An utterly blissful cat leans up against a heater. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr)
Heat-seeking cat lays on top of a heat register. (Photo: Robin Zebrowski/Flickr)
Two kittens cuddle up in front of a space heater. (Photo: Alisha Vargas/Flickr)
This silly kitty is very serious about staying warm. (Photo: lvalue/Flickr)
Tuxedo cat with a space heater in the background. (Photo: Mr.TinDC/Flickr)
A fluffy white cat curls up on top of a radiator. (Photo: mama_mia/Shutterstock)
A happy cat crosses their paws in front of a radiator. (Photo: Mark Turnauckas/Flickr)

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.