You know what I’m talking about. You’re perhaps reading a book on the couch or lounging in bed, when Oof! — all of a sudden, you have several pounds of feline furriness sauntering across your middle. Why do so many of our cats seem to like to do this?
As far as I’m aware, there really aren’t studies that can help answer this question, but, as a veterinary behaviorist, let me share with you my thoughts on this behavior.
Domestic cats as a species do not exhibit great differences in body sizes. Yes, there are some cats who are only five to six pounds and others who may achieve 20 pounds or more, but compared to dogs — which can range from tiny teacup Chihuahuas to huge Irish Wolfhounds — the size disparity is not great.
As kittens, they also go through an exploratory stage, where they crawl and climb over all nooks and crannies. Sometimes their explorations involve climbing on their mother, littermates and people. Kittens learn that sleeping on each other — and us — is a pleasant sensation. We are a warm, soft surface that they can rest on. Interestingly, cats do not walk on each other when grown, but I think it is because they do not have large enough bodies to do so — or enough disparity in size, so that a much larger cat might serve as a comfortable resting place for a smaller one.
As kittens grow up, they are relatively similar in body size, and they learn from interacting with each other that it is not pleasant to walk on one another, most likely due to the negative reactions they receive when they try to do so. I do not think this concept applies to beings with larger bodies though. For example, on farms, I have frequently seen cat walk on the backs of cows gathered at the milking parlor or sit on the backs of goats, sheep and horses.
Although we ourselves enjoy resting our heads on pillows or our bodies on sofas, as children, we do not treat those objects with particular care. I remember jumping on the couch to have fun and then stepping on the pillows to try to grab an object just out of my reach. As an adult, although I no longer jump on the couch or stand on pillows, I still occasionally use them in such a way when I need to.
Adult cats who seem to walk all over us may very well be treating our bodies as if they were useful objects, like sofas, cushions and pillows. Of course, they may also cuddle up to us for attention and warmth, but if they need to get from point A to point B and we are in the way — or in a helpful location — some cats will just step on us. Cats certainly don’t have a concept that this is not polite or that sometimes it might even hurt us depending on where they step. For them, I think walking on us is just a means to an end.
So, should you be insulted or upset if your cat walks on you? No! I personally take it as a sign of trust and affection that my cats feel comfortable enough to step on me, because it means that they also sometimes do it in order to lie on me and get some extra cuddle time!