Does Your Cat “Go Vertical” by Climbing to High Places?


The nightmare goes like this: I’m on a catwalk, on an aircraft carrier. (I’m a Navy brat. I grew up visiting aircraft carriers. It’s not weird for me to dream about them.) I’m climbing up narrow, fire-escape-like stairs, hanging off the side of the tall, gray structure that towers over the flight deck. It’s a bright day. It’s windy. I’m not alone, and I’m not particularly scared, just cautious. Then, for no reason, everything comes out from under me. I fall. A half-second later, the instant I hit the deck, all goes black and I wake up with a fierce intake of breath and a pulse so loud the neighbors can hear it.

I fear high places.

Just the same, I enjoy pushing that fear of heights. In the right circumstances (plenty of space, no rush of people, no screaming children) I can make my way to precarious places on mountains, bridges, dams, or skyscrapers and get one hell of a thrill. Last year, for example, I walked across a converted train trestle in Santa Cruz and enjoyed the view while reporting my joyful and calm state of mind to Daphne, my lovely and talented fiancee. With some meditative effort (and calm surroundings) I overcame that dizzy, breathless feeling that coincides with something urgently tightening in my hind quarters. I love to conquer the fear.

Most of the time, though, I’m a “bush dweller.” (I’ll define that in a minute.)

My cat — Thomas “Big Paws” Parker — is also afraid of heights. Well, that’s my theory anyway. His behavior suggests as much. And it also suggests that, like me, he likes to challenge his fear occasionally.

A “bush dweller” is what Jackson Galaxy, host of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell, calls a cat who likes low places. He calls a cat who likes high places a “tree dweller.” Thomas is definitely in the first category, and we have a trail of cat furniture to prove it. Daphne got Thomas a cat tree a few years ago that was the feline equivalent of a five-story building, yet he rarely went near it. Conversely, one of his favorite places is a perch and scratching post that sits level with the bedroom window. This would be something like a backyard deck in the cat world. Thomas also loves our dining room table, which is about the same height, but the kitchen counter — slightly higher — seems to be just over his limit unless he’s feeling cocky.

Thomas has limited outdoor privileges, and when he’s in the wild of our backyard he aims low.

He often reclines/hides for long stretches in the corner of a flowerbed that contains tall grass. Recently, when he was suffering from episodes of feline hyperesthesia, he often retreated to this low-lying hidden spot, and it calmed him down immediately.

When he leaves the flowerbed and lawn, he rarely goes very high. He has this favorite chair, for example.

He loves the chair so much that at times he attempts to consume it.

Sometimes Thomas gets daring and navigates the bush-level hammock for maximum adorability.

Thomas lives in the World of the Low, but one exception stands in the backyard. Its name is Crabapple Tree. As trees go, a human wouldn’t consider it exceptionally tall. It extends to about the peak of the roof of our house. But in cat measurements, it’s probably like a high-rise apartment complex. Every now and then, Thomas channels a special brand of cat crazy, and he darts up the trunk of the tree — which is slightly angled for ease of ascent and descent — and he confidently claws his way to 10 or 15 feet up.

He gets a little wacky at first.

He shows remarkable agility and confidence, considering all the time he spends flying close to the ground.

Then he settles in, like a feline version of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, if not for a lifetime then, well, for about 10 or 15 minutes.

After a while, I’ll call his name, and he comes down just as quickly as he went up. Within 30 seconds or so we’re all inside, back to bush dwelling and the cat-coves associated with it.

Is your cat a bush dweller or tree dweller? Do you have tall cat trees? Or floor-level hiding spots? Tell me in the comments.

All photos by Daphne “Big Paws” Phillips.

Cat Dandy, despite his fear of heights, loves to fly:

About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster and Dogster.

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