Sleeping in a Sunbeam Like a Cat on a Bed

By Bill Hall

I suppose I belabor the obvious in pointing out anything odd about a cat but why is it that human beings seek darkness when they get ready to sleep and cats preparing to catch a few winks often seek light?

If we leave the reading lamp on over our bed, that is where the first cat who comes along looking for a nap will land -- directly under the bright light.

You and I, by contrast, when ready to rest brain and body, normally go into a room with the shades pulled and turn off the light. In fact, if we do not turn off the light, most of us will find it more difficult to fall asleep. Our kind was meant to sleep in the dark hours. Cat kind was meant to sleep in the dark hours or the light hours or the dusk and dawn hours, any time there's a chance to curl up and get a few winks.

The odd thing is that when a cat sleeps outside in warm weather, it will often sleep in the dense, dark shade back under the bushes. Inside the house in winter, by contrast, it will sleep on the bed pillow directly under the reading light. And if we don't leave the light on and the cat can't figure out how to turn it on with its stubby hands, it will sleep in a sunbeam coming through the window. Why?

It's a matter of heat not light. In winter, a cat sleeps under a reading lamp or in a sunbeam for the same reason it sleeps on the hood of a freshly used car with a hot engine -- for warmth. In fact, that's why they like to sleep on you -- because you're hot.

Cats seem to relish far more heat than you would expect for somebody who lives his whole life with a fur coat on. You would think a cat is an intensely cold-blooded animal like a tropical bird (which they will sometimes eat because they like a warm meal as much as you do). But cats don't actually seem to be cold-blooded. They sometimes sleep outside in relatively cold weather. And they roam outside on cold northern days with no sign of discomfort at all, going barefoot through the snow, the little fools.

But why then does a cat sleep in the dense, dark bushes in summer rather than out in the sun?

Because there are limits to how much heat even a cat likes and can stand. When the temperature is 100 and the sun is blazing down, even a warmth-loving cat can appreciate a little shade and a cool bed of moist earth beneath a bush.

However, on all but the warmest days, a cat prefers a hot incandescent bulb or a sunbeam. Nonetheless, it is always startling to walk into the bedroom and see a cat sleeping there under the reading light, just as a person would do after falling asleep while reading a book. However, though I have looked, there is never a little book flopped over on the hairy chest where a cat has been overwhelmed by a combination of exhaustion and a boring writer.

Cats also differ from us in their wide range of tolerance for temperature, high and low. Humans, who baby themselves with artificial heat and artificial cooling -- wrapping summer in winter and winter in summer -- lose their range of tolerance. I have relatives who are in virtual pain if the temperature deviates more than 2 degrees above or below 74 degrees. And as I grow older, I have tendencies that way myself.

But I do better in the spring and fall of the year because I am often out working in the yard in heat and cold that schizophrenic time of year. I am told that builds capillaries nearer the skin, giving me a better heater and radiator for coping with temperature variations. And that's probably how cats do it, roaming winter and summer with no outward signs of discomfort. (It is hunger -- going five minutes without food -- that pains cats, not temperature).

But there is a lesson in this for our kind. If you tend to be a wimp where temperature is concerned, you can probably adjust your system if you start sleeping under reading lamps in winter and out in the bushes in summer.

Meanwhile, it might warm your mood to realize that the cat recognizes and appreciates what we have forgotten -- that the electric light is a miracle. It is a piece of the sun brought inside. A light bulb is a sunbeam in a bottle. And there is nothing finer than sleeping in a sunbeam.



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