Most cats like high (off the floor) places. You’ll find them on couches, beds, tables, bookshelves, kitchen cupboards, cat trees and even doors – anywhere but the floor! No space is sacred when you have a cat.
If you’ve read many of my other articles, you’ll know that when I talk about cat behaviours (or any organism’s behaviour for that matter), I explain that the behaviour must serve a purpose or have a reward, otherwise it wouldn’t occur.
The need to be up high is no exception!
Height is such an important aspect of a cat’s world, for many reasons (which we’ll get in to shortly). Sometimes it can be the bane of a cat guardian’s life, especially new cat guardians! The requirement to create an environment that provides elevated space and allows for this natural ‘need’ can sometimes be financial and even aesthetically problematic.
Before we get too far into the article, I do have one caveat. Not all cats seem to have the same urge to be elevated. Some cats are happy to be mostly at floor level – Jackson Galaxy labels these as ‘floor-dwellers’. This is ok, but in my experience most cats like having the option to be off the floor.
Let’s go through the main reasons for this behaviour, some dangers to look out for, and some ideas to implement in your home.
As with most not-so-conditioned behaviours (or what we call ‘species-specific’ behaviours), we need to look at the evolutionary and ethological reasons for it.
In a natural environment, cats are right in the middle of the food chain. On one hand, they are, what I like to call ‘the perfect predator’. Almost every sense and body mechanic has evolved for them to catch prey, from their extremely flexible musculoskeletal system (which allows them to jump six to nine times their own height, depending on the resource you’re reading), to their heightened senses of smell and hearing. Watching a cat on the hunt is a beautiful thing to experience.
On the other hand, their size makes them vulnerable to other, larger predators.
So, what’s a cat to do? Get up high!
Being up high not only gives them a good view of prey that may be located in their territory close by, but it also gives them safety from other predators. It’s a win-win solution to both of these needs! It basically gives them an advantage over their environment and the animals they share it with (including you!).
But being up high is not just for watching, it’s also for relaxing. Given the safety, comfort and confidence it brings, (most) cats tend to have multiple favourite elevated spots in their territory.
If we look at a domestic, indoor cat, most of the time this behaviour wouldn’t seem to be necessary. They don’t need to worry about hunting for food, and they are relatively safe from predators indoors. However, evolved, species-specific behaviours like this are difficult to stop (and shouldn’t be stopped). Instead, we need to provide for them.
The indoor environment has some extra aspects that height does come in handy for.
In a cat’s natural environment, their territory is quite large, area-wise. Some cats can travel up to tens of kilometres per day, patrolling their territory and hunting. Squeezing one or multiple cats into a territory footprint the size of a house can often create problems if we don’t provide for their territory needs in other ways.
Elevated space can increase territorial ‘area’ for a cat. We humans aren’t really climbers so we only think of space as square footage. A cat on the other hand, perfectly equipped with the tools and mental requirements to climb and balance, views bookshelves, couches, beds, desks, counters, tables etc as an extension of the territory!
We went through how being up high protects from other predators, but a home environment may be fraught with other ‘threats’ as well.
The boisterous dog, the loud and handsy toddler, and even other cats can all be considered annoyances or threats that a cat may want to escape from. Providing that vertical space that the dog or toddler can’t reach will vastly reduce his stress levels.
We know that territory is possibly the most important thing to a cat. Any changes or other happenings in the territory may be seen as threatening or curious to a cat, depending on the cat’s temperament. A high, well located vantage point allows a cat to watch over his territory with confidence and a sense of safety. It can also provide a private, calm space in a busy household.
Given that elevated spaces increase territory, they can also bring down the territorial stress that may creep up in a multi-cat household. Elevated/vertical spots are considered ‘resources’ in a cat’s territory, so having multiple is important.
On top of this, some behaviourist and guardians observe that height also may equal status. Being higher than another cat may be a form of hierarchical agreement, though this is very dynamic and can change from one day to the next.
Of course, with height comes the danger of falling. Here are a few considerations for guardians:
• Balconies can be dangerous. No matter how coordinated a cat is, there’s always a very real danger of a cat falling from a balcony railing. All it takes (for example) is some sort of scare, or a cat very intently chasing prey, to slip and fall. If you live in a high rise, I would definitely suggest some sort of cat-netting or enclosure to make the (very high) outdoors safe!
• Indoor elevated space that is too high. Most normal cats can easily survive a jump from a normal bookshelf or cat tree, even if it is near the ceiling (of course, if they fall the wrong way there can be injuries). In homes that have high or vaulted ceilings, cat-accessible furniture may be too high and there may be a risk of injury.
• Kittens, advanced age cats, and clumsy cats! Kittens haven’t developed the sense of coordination that their older brethren have, so installing that extra large size cat tree when you first get your 9 week old may not be the best choice (yet). Cats who are getting on in age may not be able to jump as high or far, so may need some extra ‘help’ like ramps, stairs and extra levels. As far as clumsy cats, need I say more! If you’ve got a cat who seems to always be falling over himself, maybe an extra high vantage spot shouldn’t be on the cards!
• Collars. Mostly for outdoor cats (but can be for indoor cats depending on the environment). If you’ve got an energetic climber, a breakaway collar is the best choice. This type of collar will break apart at the clasp (hence the name) if a cat gets hooked on anything when climbing.
This is the fun part! There are almost infinite ways to add some height to a cat’s territory.
Cat trees are the most obvious example. But cat cities, wall gyms, normal furniture appropriately located are all great options. If you are a DIYer, there are endless plans for cat trees on the web.
Googling the keyword ‘catification’ and looking at the images can provide great inspiration, as can Jackson Galaxy and Kate Benjamin’s book, Catify to Satisfy. Hauspanther is another great website for inspiration and ideas.
The main considerations when looking to add vertical space are (from the cat’s perspective):
• Height – the higher the better (within reason – see ‘Dangers’ above)
• Location – always in socially significant areas or sub territories. A cat tree in the laundry is unlikely to be used.
• Number – this is very important. One main bookshelf or cat tree is likely to create competition in a multi-cat household. The more spots you have, the less perceived scarcity there is in the cat’s mind.
Cats need vertical space. Most do anyway (some seem to be happy ground-dwellers, but these are the exception). Getting up off the ground is built-in to their DNA. As responsible cat guardians, we need to meet this need by providing opportunities to perch, sleep and observe their environment for up high (always with consideration of the potential dangers).