Cat owners have many names for an adorable phenomenon none of us quite understand. For the sake of conversation, we’ll call it “loafing” — it’s when a cat tucks in his or her paws and looks exactly like a loaf of bread. While it’s damn near impossible to understand what’s going on with cats 99 percent of the time, a scientist who studies cats tells Inverse there’s actually a reasonable explanation for this. It’s also pretty cute, to boot.
Anecdotally speaking, you’re most likely to spot a cat loaf in his or her favorite spot, be it on your lap, clothes, furniture, or any inconvenient area in your house that your cat has decided to conquer. But experts say it’s probably not just a coincidence that your cat curls up in these kinds of places.
“Generally speaking, a cat who is lying with their paws tucked underneath them is considered relaxed,” cat researcher Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, tells Inverse. “They aren’t preparing to defend themselves or run away.”
Sitting like a loaf may also have “some heat preserving benefits,” Delgado adds. Cats’ thermoneutral zone — the temperature range in which they’re not expending any energy to cool off or get warm — is between 85 and 100 degrees, so tucking themselves in might help retain heat.
While loafing is admittedly adorable, it’s important to inspect your cat’s paws and make sure they’re not trying to tell you something else.
“A cat who is still perched on their paws may be in pain, so it’s good to know if the paws are totally tucked,” Delgado says.
Though we might never know why cats do most of the things they do, at least we understand that a) cats loaf for a good reason, and b) it makes their owners very happy.
“I call that ‘polite paws,’ Maggie Serota, Managing Editor at Death and Taxes, tells Inverse about her cat, Cosmo. “I tell him he looks like a gentleman when he folds his paws.”