Have you ever wondered why cats like to knock things off tables, shelves and other high places?
It’s a behaviour that almost every cat owner has seen – almost any funny cat YouTube or Facebook video will inevitably have it as one or more clips!
It can be amusing and entertaining, but it can also be frustrating and even downright dangerous (for example, glass objects, medication that doesn’t have the lid fastened on properly)!
Let’s explore the main reasons why cats like to knock things off tables, and how to potentially minimise it (or at least make it safer).
Cats are predatory hunters, and using their paws to explore their world while they hunt can help determine whether a mouse or bug-looking thing is actually a mouse or bug, or whether it’s alive or dead.
Any cat owner who has seen their cat chase prey will notice they like to bat it around for a bit after they’ve wounded it.
Also, pushing to the ground from a height can help displace prey from objects they may be hiding in. So, a cat pushing your pen, make-up or phone from the table or bathroom basin may simply be ‘on the hunt’ so see if something scurries out!
A cat looking for some enrichment will start to look for ways to engage with their environment that gives them some satisfaction. This reason is probably tightly connected with the first, but with a slight difference. Instead of looking for prey, they are looking for something to do that is engaging.
Given that a cat knows every inch of their territory, anything new, or in an unexpected place, is ripe for exploration. That new object near the corner of the table or shelf is unlikely to last long there!
Almost all attention-seeking behaviours have been inadvertently conditioned by owners.
Because they’ve rewarded the behaviour with their attention.
Many instances of counter-surfing, play aggression, excessive vocalisation (directed towards humans), annoying night-time behaviours, have been conditioned and rewarded with your attention. And the attention doesn’t need to be good either – yelling and squealing is often reinforcing too!
Think about what you do when your cat knocks something off a table or shelf. Most likely it’s some sort of yell directed at him, which, to him, is exactly what he wanted. So next time he wants your attention, he knows just how to get it!
Firstly, it’s not necessarily something we should ‘stop’. Given its instinctive basis, and its utility as a boredom-buster, it’s perhaps not something we should discourage. Instead, we can make it safer and redirect it to more appropriate objects.
Firstly, having a small object near the edge of a table, shelf or other elevated spot is just asking for it to be thrown off! A cat will naturally want to explore the object and throwing it to the floor is an acceptable ‘exploration method’ in the world of a cat!
Replacing them with objects that are ok to push off (e.g. toys, toilet roll puzzle feeders etc) will make you and your cat much happier!
Any object that is dangerous to a cat, if thrown off the table, should be kept away from the edge. As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, this includes things like glass objects and medication, but also consider things that may not break but still are hazardous if you don’t find them, like rubber bands and hair ties, string, ribbon, food toxic to cats, flowers etc. As owners of one of the most curious animals around, we have a responsibility to make sure their environment is safe.
On a moment-by-moment basis, all living organisms are making behavioural decisions, looking for activities which will give them the most reward. Cats are no different. When they are engaging with their environment, they look for things to do that will benefit them the most. For example, a cat who is full of energy and looking to play/explore will weigh-up between (hypothetical example):
A cat who has no food puzzles (or they are always empty), a short, wobbly and unsatisfying scratching post, never gets proper play, and doesn’t have an engaging window view, will most likely look to start pushing things off shelves as it’s the most rewarding activity available in that moment!
So, creating an engaging environment will undoubtedly redirect at least some of this behaviour, especially if it’s boredom-related.
A cat who is doing this for attention-seeking purposes will keep doing it as long as you keep giving him your attention.
If you believe it’s attention-seeking (particularly if it happens in your bedroom at night), the only thing you can do (once the behaviour has occurred) is completely ignore it. Don’t look at the cat or make a sound! Any attention will further strengthen the behaviour, and next time he wants your attention he’ll know exactly what to do! This goes for any attentions-seeking behaviour, not just knocking things off shelves (think: annoying night time behaviours), as long as it’s safe for you to do so.
A cat knocking things off tables and other high places is a completely natural behaviour, and one that us cat owners need to be prepared for. Understanding why they do it is key, and the simple tips above can turn it from an annoying and potentially dangerous activity, into one that allows your cat to naturally explore their environment safely.
Here’s to happy and healthy cats!