Ask a Behaviorist
Share this image

For Cats, Being High Is Good

Cats need to climb and be in high places; here are reasons why and ways to create vertical territory.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Oct 17th 2014


Cats view their surroundings from a different perspective than people do. Most humans like to navigate the world with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Cats, on the other hand, often prefer checking out their surroundings from a high vantage point.

Climbing, jumping, and napping up high are not just random feel-good behavior. The need to be up high is instinctual. It can change relationships between cats and increase the odds of survival. Cat parents should accommodate this basic need by providing their resident kitties with vertical territory — high places they can hang out on.

Four reasons cats need vertical territory

  1. Vertical territory helps keep the peace.
    Cats living together use surfaces at different heights to show their status in their flexible hierarchy without starting wars with each other. They exhibit their social position simply by where they hang out in relation to each other. It is not static — the same cat does not continually occupy the top tier of the status ladder. A variety of factors, including the time of day, other animals, the individuals’ health, and the presence of food influence who will hang out on the highest perch at a specific time.

  2. Vertical territory helps keep cats safe.
    Cats feel safe up high. In addition to being out of reach of dogs and other dangers, kitties have the visual advantage and can observe all of the goings-on around them. Potential threats and best buddies are easily spotted from up high.
  3. Vertical territory helps keep cats warm.
    A frequently overlooked benefit of vertical territory is temperature. Because heat rises, top perches and high shelves can become cozy places on cold winter days.
  4. Vertical territory helps keep cats entertained.
    Although cats who live indoors are safer than their outside cousins, they often become bored and gain weight. Vertical territory with perches at different heights inspires cats to jump and climb. Additionally, placing cat trees in front of secured windows provides hours of entertainment.

Cat trees and other ways to provide vertical territory

Vertical territory is available in many forms — commercial and homemade. You do not have to go into debt in order to satisfy your little feline’s needs to be up high. You can design your own or take advantage of household furniture and existing architectural elements. The tops of armoires, refrigerators, bookshelves, and entertainment centers double as ideal areas for cats to hang out. Windows with wide sills, beams, and built-in cabinets can also become part of the vertical solution. There is also a wide selection of good looking cat furniture available — some reasonably priced.

If you live in a small studio, you can help make your cat happy by providing her with surfaces at different heights. Instead of bulky cat furniture, secure shelves up high around the perimeter of the room. Place the shelves near household furniture so that it is easy for the kitty to climb or jump up on them.

Six points to consider when searching for vertical territory

  1. Safety and stability
    Cats often enjoy intense, rambunctious play sessions; complete with chases, high jumps, and climbs. Poorly made cat furniture may not withstand the activity. Cheap cat trees may topple and shelves crash to the floor. Make cat furniture safe by using substantial brackets to secure shelves to the wall and attaching large pieces of plywood to the bases of unstable cat trees.
  2. Shelf size
    Cats love to stretch out and lounge on perches and shelves. Many also enjoy snuggling with another feline buddy, especially on a cold day. Buy or build cat furniture with shelves and perches large enough to accommodate cats when they stretch out and snuggle together.
  3. Shelf surfaces
    Although many modern interpretations of cat furniture are beautiful and double as art, some may be impractical for the ultimate users — cats. Perches might be too small or finished with a slick varnish. Cats can easily slip and fall when jumping on them. Many kitties also find the hard, slick surfaces uncomfortable. Make the perches more cat-centric and slip-free by firmly securing sisal, cat beds, or other material on them
  4. Whether the furniture is new
    Cats’ sense of smell is highly developed; it helps them identify buddies and intruders. Secondhand cat furniture, saturated with the scent of the previous user, often causes stress and bickering between cats. The other downside of used furniture is pathogens. Germs, fleas, and other parasites often hitch a ride on pre-owned furniture. Always buy new cat furniture or build from scratch.
  5. Height
    Tall cat furniture built with different levels helps cat feel safe and allows them to exhibit their positions in the hierarchy. Construct or buy furniture with multiple perches and shelves at different heights. The top perch should be at least five feet high.
  6. Accessibility
    Special-needs kitties, including those who are not as agile as they once were, may find it difficult to jump and climb up to the shelves and perches. Help them safely enjoy the benefits of vertical territory by choosing furniture with low shelves or placing them next to easy-to-reach pet stairs, chairs, and sofas.

Don’t skimp on vertical territory. More is better — your cat will thank you for it.

Please follow Marilyn on Facebook!

Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.

Learn how to live a better life with your cat on Catster: