This post is written by guest author, Allison Hunter-Frederick, from Allison Helps Cats LLC.
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Cats are climbers. Not only are their bodies built for it, but their brains are also wired for it. For both of these reasons, we must provide our cats with acceptable indoor climbing options. We also need to recognize that although cats have an ability to climb high, they can hurt themselves if they fall, and so we need to help keep them safe in their explorations.
A flexible musculoskeletal system makes cats athletic climbers. Cats often start a climb with a jump to gain height quickly. Their strong backs and hind legs enable them to leap several times their own length. They then tense their hindquarters before propelling themselves upwards. Their sharp, extendable claws help them establish a firm grip, while their forelegs help them maintain balance. Finally, balance and coordination help them climb to their destination.
This post is part one of a three part series:
- Part 1: Why Do Cats Need to Climb?
- Part 2: Why Do Cats Need to Scratch? (stay tuned)
- Part 3: Why Do Cats Need to Hide? (stay tuned)
History of Cats and Climbing
Cats have long had a reputation for being skilled climbers. One ancient European fable tells of a fox that boasts to a cat of knowing a hundred survival tricks. The cat replies that she has only one trick. When a pack of hounds approaches, the cat climbs the tree while the fox goes through each of its tricks, but is eventually caught and killed.
Long before kittens were scaling curtains and cats were surfing countertops, their ancestors were climbing trees. Climbing is one of the first ways that cats start to learn about their skills and abilities. It’s their way of developing their muscles and working on flexibility and balance. Even the youngest kitten will instinctively want to climb, whether it’s your bed or your refrigerator. To us, these may simply be furniture and appliances, but to some cats they are challenges to be scaled at all costs.
There are several reasons behind this instinctual drive to climb. In the wild, cats might chase prey up a tree, or they might use a tree as a concealed site from which to hunt. Although our homes contain limited prey (we hope), cats still feel prefer to view their surroundings from a vantage point and might use it to pounce on another household cat in a game of chase. PetMD notes that although our homes aren’t likely filled with landbound predators such as hyenas, they still do have potential threats that require constant monitoring and quick exits: dogs and children.
Cats climb for other reasons too such as to increase territory, gain prestige, or to simply have fun. The more vertical areas that are available to your cat, the larger its territory and the greater its sense of security, which is especially important in a multi-cat household. There’s also a certain prestige that comes along with occupying the highest spot in the house. Cats who control the top perch are generally the most dominant or the “top cats.”
The bottom line is that cats live in three dimensions. They’re not earthbound creatures and so climbing is both useful and fun for them.
Indoor Climbing Resources
Given the importance of climbing for cats, it’s essential that we provide them with acceptable indoor climbing options. Certified cat behavior consultant Kateena Jones says that no matter what climbing options you provide, the smaller your home, the most vertical space you’ll need. She elaborates by saying that if you think your home is tiny, imagine spending all day in it, and then stresses, “Climbing posts are like litter boxes, they’re a must-have.”
Amber Aquart, Certified Animal Trainer, also recommends doing station training using wooden stools or similar higher platforms to give your cat a dedicated vertical spot for them so that they don’t spend their time counter surfing.
Scratching posts and cat trees are the most commonly-owned cat furniture, and many cat experts consider them to be must-haves. Every cat home should have at least one scratching post per cat. Ideally, the scratching post would be taller than a cat’s body length to allow the cat to stand on its hind legs, stretch to its full height and give a good scratch. Cat trees are taller than cat scratching posts, and they give cats scratching surfaces and a climbing opportunity.
In addition, if you have some vacant wall space, consider installing some cat shelves, which will provide your cat with additional escape routes. If you have large windows, suction-mounted window perches can serve the same purpose.
When adding climbing options to your home, give special consideration to your senior cats. Just because our cats are elderly doesn’t mean they’ve lost their inner drive to climb. However, they may no longer be able to leap as far to reach them. Therefore, it’s up to us to make our home’s cat perches more accessible as our cats age.
Climbing Dangers and Precautions
Inside of our homes, we may not think there is much danger of cats falling and hurting themselves. However, it’s important to recognize that cats are better at ascending heights than descending, largely because most cats jump from high places rather than climb down.
When cats jump or climb furniture in our home, it’s conceivable that they might get stuck on top, too scared to climb or jump down. My family’s cats have jumped from a table to the top of a high cabinet, only to discover that they’re afraid to jump down.
Windows pose a big potential problem. If you have a loose screen, an open window, or balcony door on an upper story, a fall can pose a real danger. According to Pet Assure, during the warmer months particularly, cats are at risk of “high-rise syndrome,” a term coined by veterinarians to refer to injuries sustained from falls from buildings.
The UK pet charity Blue Cross is so concerned about this hazard that it even carries out an awareness campaign to alert pet owners to the dangers of cats falling out windows. Blue Cross advises pet owners to invest in screens or netting that will keep them safe. If your home has double-hung windows, open them from the top rather than the bottom. That way, you’ll minimize the likelihood that your overexcited cat will push open the window screen and fall. Window injuries are a serious issue that can be prevented very easily and without much expense.
The injuries that cats can suffer from a fall can be serious or even fatal. Purely Pet Insurance explains that when cats suffer a fall from a particularly high location, they tend to land with their feet slightly apart, which can cause head and pelvis injuries. Falls can also result in shattered jaws, punctured lungs, broken limbs, head injuries, and sometimes even death.
Cats are natural climbers, which can sometimes get them into trouble with their owners and can even put them in real danger. It’s therefore our responsibility to provide our cats with acceptable and safe options for climbing inside our homes so that they can live long, safe, and fulfilled lives.
About the Author: Allison Hunter-Frederick is a cat behavior consultant, cat therapy handler, and pet education blogger. Her articles have been published in local and national publications, as well as on her blog, Lincoln Pet Culture. Through her business, Allison Helps Cats LLC, she uses a research-based, positive reinforcement teaching approach to help cat owners improve their relationships with their cats all from the comfort of their home.