Last month I received a package that changed my life forever. I knew immediately what was inside, perhaps on account of the fact that the sleek black box weighed nearly 45 kg, and I had ordered a hideous pink gamer chair a couple months prior. The moment I pried my chair’s embossed carapace open, one of our cats, Graymalkin, leaped inside and laid on the un-assembled chair’s cushion. This, it turns out, was just the beginning of a much greater struggle.
A month and a half later, Grey, originally just my partner’s cat, but now also my adopted son, cannot get enough of my chair. If I briefly get up to make coffee or use the bathroom, he’s lazing in it when I return. Some days, he spends hours chilling out beneath my desk, as though lying in wait to pounce on the chair, which his tiny but nonetheless correct cat brain tells him I will eventually have to leave. He spends nights curled up in it. At this point, he recognises that when I begin to sit down, he needs to move, but at first, I had to physically remove him from the chair every time I needed to use it. I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t impacted our relationship. He used to gratefully accept pets from me, sometimes throwing his elegantly shaped, vacant-eyed little face right into my hand, but now he slinks away, as though he bears a longstanding grudge. This worries me. After all, if there’s one thing cats know how to do, it’s hold grudges.
Curious about Grey’s obsession, I decided to ask other people at the rarified intersection of cat parent and gamer chair owner if they’d observed similar phenomena. While some said no, many — more than I was expecting, honestly — effusively came forward with similar tales.
“Yes, constantly,” a software developer named Alain said on Twitter in response to my question about cats regularly sitting or sleeping in gamer chairs. “We have to cover ours in plastic at night.”
“Yes!” another Twitter user whose username is fittingly Amandameowly replied in response to the same question. “And when I go to actually use it, my cat yells at me and circles the chair screaming while I’m on Discord!”
Other cat owners’ stories varied. Some said their cats occupied their chairs at every opportunity, but would politely leave when asked, and that daily dynamic hadn’t awoken any dormant grudge-bearing capacities within the cats. To those people, I ask: Are you sure you don’t have a dog? Others told me that their cats were chill about it most of the time, but would sometimes sink their claws into chairs in an effort to avoid being dislodged from their finely woven cushion fortresses. Some cats, said their owners, aren’t content to just lay in gamer chairs; these cats like to scale them, as though they are gaudily coloured Everests.
I just put mine together yesterday, and this was maybe about an hour after I finished pic.twitter.com/VXsd9FY4Ty
— Sean Rose ASMR (@JabroniSean) August 10, 2020
Why, though? It is a commonly accepted fact that cats like to lay on things, but this sort of fervor is typically reserved for eating and, well, mainly just eating. Grey, for example, took a passing interest in an office chair we had before both my partner and I, avid gamers, decided to rise up by sitting down in gamer chairs, but he didn’t wait all day long for the chance to curl up in it for a few minutes.
With curiosity laying siege to the pet gates of my mind, I decided to seek out expert advice. Now, cats aren’t so simple that a single motivation can universally explain a behaviour pattern, but Dr. Mikel Maria Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and cat behaviour consultant, and Stephen Quandt, a feline behaviour coordinator at the Animal Care Centres of NYC, were willing to offer some theories.
It begins, as many things for cats do, with scent. Cats, Quandt explained, maintain scent profiles of everybody they know.
“Everybody in their life has an identifiable scent,” Quandt told Kotaku over the phone, also noting that cats likely perceive their people as parental — specifically maternal — figures who provide for them. “[For people], it would be like ‘Oh, that’s my friend John’ or ‘Oh, that’s my girlfriend from 10 years ago.’ … To them, it’s super obvious.”
This is part of why cats react negatively to other cats they perceive as being outside their own cat colony. “It’s like ‘Whoa, I don’t know you!’” said Quandt. “’You’re not from my family.’”
“In many ways, cats are smart,” he continued. “They’re certainly smart in the context of how they’ve adapted to their environment, but their brains are about the size of a walnut. And so for them to get over stranger danger, they need to kind of forget that a scent is foreign.”
They do this by melding scents together, using tools like glands in their cheeks that dispense pheromones. “What they’re doing is, they’re co-mingling, literally, your scent and their scent, and they’re putting their scent on top of your scent,” Quandt said. “So then they can go ‘Oh yeah, that’s our chair. It’s not your chair. It’s our chair.’”
That could partially explain why cats are drawn to gamer chairs: People spend a lot of time in them, so they function as scent nexuses. Cats also view the world through a lens of both horizontal and vertical territory, and within species, it’s important to designate non-violent means of establishing dominance, because violence only harms a species’ ability to do things like eat and procreate. So cats claim surfaces that are high off the ground, rather than rushing into interspecies violence. A chair can fit that bill. In my own household’s case, we recently got a second cat, Biscuit, and she and Grey aren’t exactly friends yet. Grey, then, could be compensating by behaving more territorially than he otherwise might.
He loves sleeping and climbing on this chair at all times pic.twitter.com/Ly1dDD7T7H
— Ash (@Fizzymints) August 10, 2020
Cats can get territorial with people, too. I’m a relative newcomer to what Grey perceives as his family, and while he generally prefers my partner — who he lived with for years before he ever met me — he spends the lion’s share of his time in my chair, rather than hers. Both Quandt and Delgado agreed that he might be trying to tell me something through his behaviour.
“He might be sending you a little message there,” Delgado told Kotaku over the phone, “that he lives there too, don’t forget it.”
“Sometimes, cats get up on something in order to kick us out,” said Quandt. “Other times, they do it in order to take ownership of something they feel is connected to you.”
In either case, Quandt recommended regularly feeding and playing with the cat in question, while Delgado suggested that owners should try to provide their cats with an additional surface nearby to sit on, and to coax them into it with treats, rather than physically forcing them out of the chair. These things, they said, will improve people’s relationships with their gamer chair-crazed cats. To wit, this week, my girlfriend has been out of town, so I’ve kind of stumbled into doing some of those things. I’ve been the only person feeding and playing with both cats, and Grey has had 24/7 access to my partner’s gamer chair when mine isn’t available. He’s started accepting pets from me again, and that’s a start.
But all of this only explains why a cat might fixate on a chair, not necessarily a gamer chair. For that, we’ve got to dig a little deeper. Now, you might be tempted to look at a gamer chair and say, “Well duh, it’s comfortable.” And it’s true: Cats are drawn to comfort, though their preferences vary depending on context. Sometimes they like warm surfaces, sometimes they like cool surfaces, sometimes they enjoy certain textures. But they never stop thinking like cats. They’re not just looking to chill out; they’re looking for a space that affords them ample cover as both predator and prey. This, for example, is why cats are drawn to boxes.
“We talk a lot about cats as predators, but they’re also prey animals,” Delgado said. “The walls of a box provide them with cover. It actually serves two purposes: cover from predators, so they’re hiding, but it also provides them with cover if they’re hunting. It’s a little hard for us to think about this because your cat lives indoors, doesn’t hunt, and there are not predators around, but cats’ behaviours have evolved over thousands of years. They don’t just go away overnight… A place that provides you with a little bit of cover gives you safety and allows you to relax. So you can sleep a little more soundly than if you’re out in the middle of the floor.”
Alright, now Google image search “gamer chair.” You’ll notice that no matter which model you look at, these things are fortresses. Notably, their seats often have raised edges that form an almost square pattern, in addition to prominent armrests and seat backs that could survive a high-speed race car crash. In other words, viewed through the eyes of a cat, they are the ultimate box. Comfortable, high off the ground, and surrounded by cover.
“I think we’ve found something here,” said Quandt in response to this observation.
literally just got up to use the restroom lol pic.twitter.com/Od9arttada
Delgado did not disagree that The Box Theory seemed to hold water, but she also proposed an alternative: Cats, confined to indoor environments in which they cannot hunt, get bored. Fixations that cause them to wait to get into the chair, only to be removed, could be a product of that boredom.
“He may also be doing some of this for attention, because he goes and sits in your chair, you come back, you pick him up, you put him back on the ground, and then he comes back,” she said. “Sometimes people get engaged in these little games with a cat, and if the cat is otherwise bored or isn’t getting a lot of exercise or mental stimulation, then that may be the most exciting thing that happens to them all day. I always encourage people to increase their interactive play with toys and [to] provide their cat with food puzzles where they can solve problems for food. Just make sure your cat has other things to do, because he could also be kind of forming a weird attachment to this chair, in a way where it’s the most exciting thing in his life.”