How cats manage to pass through small holes
Cats are able to squeeze into small spaces because cats do not have a rigid collarbone to block them from entering tight and narrow areas. Once they can get their head and shoulders through, their sleek bodies follow easily. A liquid is traditionally defined as a material that adapts its shape to fit a container. Yet under certain conditions, cats seem to fit this definition.
In 2017, French physicist Marc-Antoine Fardin won an Ig Nobel Prize for assessing whether cats can simultaneously act as a liquid and a solid. Ig Nobel prizes “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Asking whether cats are a liquid certainly fits in that category.
Why do cats like small spaces?
There are several reasons cats like to squeeze into small and confined spaces. They have an instinctual need for protection and to stay warm. They also like to avoid environmental stress and conflict so they look for a tight space to hide. Lastly it may remind them of being a kitten snug against their mother in a confined space.
Where do cats like to sleep?
Instinct tells cats they are vulnerable while sleeping, so they choose areas they feel safe, secure and warm. They tend to like burrowing into bags, cat beds or cat caves to take a stress-free nap as well as block out noise.
Cats are naturally drawn to small spaces, like boxes. According to the field of rheology, the study of the flow of matter, cats behave differently based on the size of the box or container. If the container is small, cats can adapt to the shape quickly. If the container is large, cats still enjoy the space but retain their solid state.
Cats are able to mold to the shape of their container due to their incredible innate flexibility. They can squeeze into and through impossibly small spaces because of their anatomy. Cats’ collar bones do not form joints with other bones, and their shoulders are attached only through muscular connections. Their super-elastic spine also contributes to cats’ liquid-like characteristics. Cats have more bones in their spines than humans, and each joint adds flexibility.
This flexibility helps cats both escape from predators and reach prey—an important evolutionary advantage. Just as their fondness for small spaces can be traced to the behavioral needs of wild cats, the flexibility that allows cats to mold into the shape of their container imparts useful advantages.
It’s easy to dismiss this kind of thought experiment as useless or a waste of time. But Fardin examined existing formulas and theorems and applied them to a new question. Familiarity with the complex foundations of a field of study allows researchers to consider questions that advance knowledge in their field. So, I would say to Fardin, keep seeing questions in daily life that inspire you—especially when they involve cats.
Dr. Hanie Elfenbein is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist located in Atlanta. Her mission is to provide pet parents with the information they need to have happy, and healthy, and fulfilled relationships with their dogs and cats.