Pet Science

The Forgotten, Evolutionary Reason Cats Love Being So High Up

What seems like an accessory is really a necessity that caters to their instincts.

Fluffy cat lies and sleeps on cat tree, front view
VICUSCHKA/Moment/Getty Images
Pet Science

First-time cat owners often receive the advice to install a cat tree for their new pets. Before long, their cats’ satisfaction has cat parents installing carpet-lined shelves and climbing poles for their feline friends.

But why do cats love being high up? It turns out, the trait is rooted deep in their evolution.

An evolutionary footing

A cat’s impulse to climb can be traced back to their feline ancestors, says Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior consultant based in Sacramento.

“You could say it's an innate feature for them just because of their natural history,” she tells Inverse. Housecats’ wild predecessors climbed trees to escape predators, stash prey, and survey the area for threats. Though our pets don’t need to escape anything except maybe the vacuum cleaner, this behavior persists.

Safe spaces

Still, our furry friends may want a higher vantage point for reasons beyond instincts. If your cat shares its space with other free-roaming creatures, a tower can offer some reprieve from constant stimulation and interaction.

“They might want to get away from, say, a dog or a toddler or other cats,” Delgado says. She adds that a household can designate these towers as safe spaces for their cat. If a family agrees to leave the cat alone while it is in the tower, “the cat learns that's the place they can go when they don't want to be bothered.”

Cats also enjoy spending time in warm spots because they have a naturally high resting temperature, Delgado says. Since warm air rises, kitties likely catch more heat higher up. Thinking vertically also helps make the most out of a smaller home. “Cats are living in a three-dimensional world,” she says, “so they want to know how high up they can get.”

On the other hand, foregoing a tower or platform could bring undesirable consequences, especially if your cat shares their space with another animal or baby. More aggression could burst out between pets who don’t have their respective spaces. “When you don't have that vertical space, you're just increasing the chance of stress and fighting between your animals,” Delgado says, though this depends on the pets’ personalities.

Housecats also require plenty of enrichment to keep their indoor lives scintillating. A cat tower gives them something to scale as well as a spot from which to watch the world below. A 2015 paper in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science that measured stress levels through a metabolite in stool and corresponding behaviors in captive cats found that one of the felines’ favorite, low-stress spots was the upper level of a cat tree. The authors concluded that cat towers have “high enrichment potential in confinement and should ideally be incorporated in any cat enclosure.”

Whether you buy or build your own cat tower, vertical space is crucial. “I definitely think it's as important as having food and water,” Delgado says.

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