Why Do Cats Like to Climb?

Have you seen old cartoons where firemen rescue a cat that's stuck in a tree? While that's a myth, (because most fire departments will only respond to human emergencies) it's not a myth that cats like to perch on high places and climb. Sometimes that leads to cats getting stuck in precarious places. Luckily, cats are made for climbing. They don't seem to have a fear of heights, so what looks like a dangerous situation to us may just be them hanging out and taking a little break.

Gray cat on a shelf
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Why cats need to climb

Instinct has a lot to do with why cats like high places. Scientists have identified a cat ancestor called Proailurus from fossils found from the Oligocene period. Proailurus, which means "early cat," lived approximately 25 million to 20 million years ago. This cat was a carnivore, as modern cats are. The fossils tell us that Proailurus was about two feet long and weighing around 20 pounds, which would make it just slightly larger than the cats of today.

Proailurus had a long tail and retractable claws. Bot of these physical characteristics make it better at climbing. The long tail provides balance and the claws help it latch on to both its predators and trees and branches. New Dinosaurs says that Proailurus probably stalked its prey from tree branches or other higher locations. Modern cats like to perch on high places because they can more easily see the birds, mice and other small animals that would be their primary food source if they were living in the wild.

How to give your cat vertical space to climb

If a cat was living outside in the wild, there's a good chance they would spend a lot of time climbing to find food. So if you have kittens that climb on you, don't be too surprised!

To satisfy this desire in modern cats, you can give your cat vertical space to climb on. The Cat Behaviourist blog talks about cat trees, cat shelves, and other DIY home projects that can give cats indoor vertical space to climb on.

Kittens playing on scratching post
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Providing some place for cats to climb on could be as simple as stacking up some carpet covered pieces of wood, or boxes with holes that they can run in and out of. If you have a high window ledge, provide something that your cat could use to jump up onto it. Retailers sell cat climbers that range from large to small and simple to complex if you don't want to DIY your own.

When indoor cats can climb whenever they want to, it not only satisfies this ancient hunting instinct, it also helps them burn off energy. This may mean they won't climb up your curtains or wake you up quite as much in the middle of the night if they get bored!

Cats can also become depressed, and having indoor vertical space can help prevent this. While living an indoor life could be seen as much safer and healthier than cats living outside, it does mean that they miss out on many of the sights, smells, and activities that they would enjoy if they were outside. Chronic boredom can lead to anxieties which can manifest in self-destructive behavior such as over-grooming (pulling hair out) or being overweight due to lack of exercise. Indoor vertical spaces are an important way of keeping your cat physically and mentally stimulated.

How to keep cats off counters and tables

As much as cats love to climb, there are some things that they dislike just as much. Most cats do not like things that stick to their paws. The Anti Cruelty Society suggests non-violent behavior deterrents such as using double sided tape on things that you want to keep your cat off of, because they do not like how it feels. "Booby trapping" your counter or tables with something that moves when they jump up or has a texture they do not like will teach them that it's not worth it to them to keep going there.

Big-eyed naughty cat showing paws on wooden table
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The Animal Humane Society recommends keeping cats off counters and tables by making the behavior unrewarding. If your cat jumps up on the counter and then she is petted and talked to while you take her down, she may just keep jumping up there because she likes the attention.

If you're using the counters to make food and your cat keeps jumping up there, consider confining her to a different room until you're done. According to The Animal Humane Society, punishment is not effective because cats don't know how to associate the punishment with the behavior.

Make sure to give your cat regular attention when they are not doing the behaviors you don't want to encourage. This action can in its own way encourage better behavior.

And, as mentioned above, give your cats vertical space that is acceptable to climb on: cat trees, shelves or steps made just for cat climbing. That way, your cat can satisfy their climbing instincts without getting their hair all over your dinner.