Why Do Cats Knock Things Off Tables?

If you ever have an afternoon you want to waste doing nothing, queue up the plethora of videos of cats knocking things off tables or other surfaces. Knocking things over is just one of the annoying things all cats do at times. But when they knock things off your tables or countertops, are they just testing gravity, or is there some other reason for it? Turns out, there is a scientific explanation — they're not just being jerks!

cat with broken flower pot on floor
credit: Nataliia Pyzhova/iStock/GettyImages

The website Inverse reported on research into cat behavior done not long ago by feline researcher Mikel Delgado, who at the time was a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. Delgado said, "This behavior typically stems from boredom and/or a failure of the owner to acknowledge cats for 'good behavior.'" So, hmmm. Does this mean the behavior is the owner's fault?

Attention seeking behavior

Delgado went on to explain that a lot of cats knock things over because they have learned it is a quick and easy way to get their human's attention. It could just be that your remote control sitting on the arm of your couch triggered your cat's hunting instinct and they knocked it over. When you get upset, or perhaps laughed, the cat learns to knock the remote over again.

Spending some time playing with your cat with a toy he likes, and praising him for his good behavior, might be enough to break him of this habit.

They're playing with their "prey"

The site How Stuff Works explains the concept of cats "toying" with prey. You've probably seen this if you've ever lived with a cat who likes to hunt. They don't just go right in for the kill. They toss that mouse in the air like it's a soccer ball.

This is a behavior that all feline hunters share. When your cat paws at a small object like your remote control with her paw, she's practicing the same behavior. After all, it's a good game, and just because it's sitting still doesn't mean that remote couldn't be a mouse that's just trying to play dead. When she pokes at the mouse that's standing still because it's scared stiff, it often starts to run away, and the game continues.

cat pawing water glass
credit: Cyndi Monaghan/Moment/GettyImages

How to stop your cat from knocking things over

How Stuff Works also agrees that knocking things over could be a sign of boredom. If your cat really wants to hunt something but there's nothing for him to hunt, he may just decide to stat hunting all the inappropriate things you want him to keep his paws off of. They suggest giving him something else to do, like toys, climbing spots, and hiding places.

They also suggest trying to remove temptation where you can. If you like to have a bunch of knickknacks around the house, try moving them to a high shelf that the cat can't reach. Even something it's common to have in a house, like picture frames resting on a side table, are fair game to a bored cat. Honestly, the phrase "why can't we have anything nice?" was probably first spoken by a cat lover.

Cat Behavior Associates suggests reducing temptation by rearranging where you keep things. For instance, if your cat keeps knocking over your pill bottles, which then roll under your dresser where you can't find them, keep the bottles out of reach. Place the pill bottles or jewelry in drawers or cabinets. They even had the brilliant suggestion of using museum wax (little dots of sticky stuff) to hold items that you don't want to get knocked over but that you want to keep on display.

Young cat playing with a vase of flowers on a wooden table
credit: Carlina Teteris/Moment/GettyImages

Again, providing safer alternatives is best. Something like a toy that you can put food or treats in to keep your cat occupied could work to distract him. The basic tenets of training could also apply here . . . redirect from bad behavior and encourage good behavior with rewards such as petting and treats. Next time your cat knocks. something over, just remember, he really can't help it!