Why Do Cats Like High Places?

Posted by Joey DiFrancesco on

cat on cat tree with question mark

Have you noticed your cat consistently finding its way to the highest point in your room?

Maybe you’ve got a cat tower or a piece of furniture that’s accessible to them, and they’re always plopped on top of it when you come home. It might seem like a simple fact of life at this point, but there are actually a lot of interesting reasons for this behavior.

This article will look through some of the reasons cats like to lay in high places. You’ll even learn a little about cat behavior and evolution along the way!

If you’re just looking for ways to enrich your cats’ lives with interesting new perches and vantage points, skip to the bottom of the article for some useful ideas.

So, why do cats like to be up high?

1. Cats Climb Instinctively

The classic “kitten in a tree” trope exists for a reason. Cats are extremely capable climbers. When cats are afraid, curious, or even hungry, they’ll often find the nearest tree.

This is particularly true when the cat has experience outdoors. Indoor cats might not initially brave a tall tree if they’ve never done so before.

If you’ve ever seen a cat fleeing a predator or acting as a predator, you’ve probably seen some of the acrobatics that allow them to climb so well. They can manipulate their bodies quickly and effectively, using their nails to grip when necessary.

If the cat is being chased, it will most often run to tallest thing around and dart to the top of it, even if the tall structure doesn’t have any spot for it to rest.

Cats will climb trees with ease, maneuver thin branches, traverse thin sticks, and strut inch-wide walkways in pursuit of their prey. The same is true if they’re afraid for some reason.

That often leads them to climb a little higher than they otherwise would. This gets a lot of cats into trouble.

High-Rise Syndrome

Cats are adept at climbing quickly, scaling 100-foot trees without a hitch in their steps. A challenge often comes when they try to get back down, though.

Some cats are able to wiggle their ways down branchless trees, sticking claws into the bark and scooting inch by inch. On the other hand, call it a flaw in evolution or a symptom of domestication, but many cats are unable to get down.

The men in the following video say they rescue upwards of 400 cats per year. They say that many people assume that cats will find their way down, but it’s often not that simple.

So many cats fall from extreme heights, that the injuries they sustain have a medical category named “High-Rise Syndrome.” This category includes any issues that come from a cat falling from the height of around 25 feet.

Fortunately for our house cats, the majority of their climbing happens within arm’s reach.

2. Comfort and Safety

The reason cats dart to trees, other than to chase squirrels or birds, is because cats feel safer in trees than they would be on the ground.

Many larger predators, even those who can climb well, aren’t as nimble or capable as cats. That’s partially why cats like high places - because other creatures can’t reach them there.

Hous ecats are thought to have evolved from African Wildcats which exist naturally in Africa, West Asia, and Central Asia.

So, cats evolved in an environment alongside hundreds of the deadliest predators on earth. The ability to climb, rest, and observe the landscape would have been crucial to their survival. This is true whether an individual was strolling along the plains or creeping through dense rainforests - there was always the risk of a sudden attack.

The tree, then, was a safe haven for the species.

African Wildcats still exist today, and while you’d be able to tell they weren’t your typical tabby cats, they’re very similar in appearance.

African Wildcat

*Image of an African Wildcat

Cats Climb Around The World

African Wildcats still prey on birds, small mammals, and lizards just as house cats do. Domesticated cats are now present in nearly every environment where humans live due to their domestication and transportation.

Agility and the ability to climb serve house cats well in all environments in terms of hunting and escaping predators. That’s why cats have such a massive impact on local wildlife wherever they go.

Cats capture literally billions of birds and small mammals each year in the United States. As they’re not native to North America, this puts a serious strain on local ecosystems.

This is all to say that cats, wherever they go, should feel more comfortable perching high above the ground where they can observe possible threats or find food. It serves them well, even though it’s not the best thing for your local bird population.

That’s also why the highest rung on your bookshelf is your furry friend’s favorite spot - they feel comfortable and confident there.

cat in tree chasing bird

3. Cat Hierarchies & Vantage Points

Cats are largely solitary hunters, although it’s not unheard of for them to live naturally in groups and work together to survive. Investigations into the feeding orders of feral cats show that there’s a clear hierarchy that dictates who eats first.

Sex, age, and size all factor into who gets the first bite. The same is true for multiple domesticated cats living in a single home. They’ll establish their territories and assert themselves in various ways.

Their methods aren’t as severe or complex as the ones in, say, a chimpanzee hierarchy, but social order is still an aspect of those cats’ daily lives. One way these hierarchies might be reflected is through the height of a cat’s territory.

So, if one of your cats consistently demands the highest spot in the house, they might be the dominant one of the bunch. While this could be a display of power, it’s not likely exactly how we think of “alpha” or “dominant” behavior.

Cats Don’t Have ‘Alphas’

To create the complex social hierarchy of chimps, humans, or lions, an animal group needs to be inherently social. Social animals live and work together to survive, developing clear roles and positions in the group.

Cats, as we all know and love, tend to be solitary creatures in our homes. This is true in the wild as well. They’re solitary predators, and they don’t often form natural groups.

(*note that that previous link states cats were domesticated 10 million years ago. They were actually domesticated 10-13,000 years ago. Hominids were not capable of domesticating animals 10 million years ago.)

When there are groups of cats living together, there are typically some extenuating circumstances like a shared food source or a safe place. Cat social structures as we know them now were likely products of cats’ proximity to humans, mostly because of our excess of food.

That means they haven’t been dealing with big social groups for very long, and their social queues and roles didn’t get much time to develop. There isn’t always clear ‘alpha’ behavior as a result, but there are little displays like sitting higher than another individual or marking a spot with their scent.

We humans are now the house cat’s social group, so those little hierarchical roles can slip into our relationships with them. That said, when your cat sits above you on the couch, don’t take it as a slight.

Maybe your cat is just feeling himself that day, or it could be that he feels most comfortable in that spot. It’s not always a display of superiority.

Why Do Cats Like to Sleep Up High?

The desire to get up high isn’t always accompanied by a task. In many cases, a cat is finding its way up a tree or a climbing post to find a comfortable place to sleep.

What better place to rest your head than somewhere you know is safe? Even though your home is a save haven for your cat, they’re still inclined to sleep in cat trees or rest high up where they can survey the environment.

That way they can avoid getting startled by toddlers, adults, other cats, and dogs. Further, they might just feel more relaxed as a result of their biological history and their sleeping habits reflect that.

This behavior is similar to a lot of the things that we humans might do unnecessarily. Our biological history is wired into us and we’re not always aware of it. Take the common fears of rats, for example.

Healthy pet rats are usually very friendly. They’re intelligent, curious little creatures and they make great pets. Many people are viscerally disgusted by the idea of having a rat in their homes, though. This is because humans tend to develop ‘disgust’ responses toward creatures that signal the presence of illness and disease, which rats have done historically (the Black Plague was largely spread with the help of rats, for example).

So, people still avoid rats because their instincts tell them it will keep them safe in the same way that domestic cats sleep up high to feel safe.

Tips for Helping Cats Rest in High Places

Now that you know your cat feels the instinct to perch, what can you do to facilitate that need?

All you need to do is some interior decorating with cats in mind. Let’s take a peek at some functional “catification,” as Jackson Galaxy calls it.

1. As Many Cat Trees As Possible

Cat trees are perfect tools for you and your cat to work with. There are tens of thousands of cat trees on the market, so there’s absolutely something out there for you.

The higher the better. There are even cat trees that pressure mount to your celing (no nails, no screws), and allow your cat to get as high up as they like.

Two kitties in a cat tree

2. The ‘Cat Superhighway’

Cat expert Jackson Galaxy has an idea called the ‘cat superhighway.’

This is essentially the concept that your cat should be able to crawl around the perimeter of the inside of your home without touching the ground. It sounds pretty wild, but it’s actually a lot more reasonable than you’d think.

Things like couches, desks, shelves, tables, and cat trees are all aspects of this highway that create vertical space for cats. It’s even better if they have to take a little leap in order to cross over different spaces. In certain areas, you can fixate shelves and walking paths along high points in your wall to let the cats prowl near the ceiling as they make their way.

So, you might need to do a little ‘catifying’ by fixing some pathways high near the ceiling, but most of the stops on this superhighway are already things you’d have in your home.

3. Window Perch Points and Views

Lastly, give your cat as many places to hang around as you can.

You should also make sure that they’ve got something to look at while they’re there. Windows are the best places for these little beds. Window cat beds with some padding are excellent places for your cat to rest, and odds are that they’re already resting near windows anyway.

Just give them a little extra space for your cats to sprawl out while they’re up there. That way, they get a comfortable place to rest while they’re entertained by the outside world.

Enhance this view by giving them something extra exciting to look at. Placing bird-feeders in front of your cat’s favorite windows will greatly improve the quality of their day while you’re not home.

They’ll get nearly endless entertainment while they rest high above the ground in a comfortable place. Plus, all that pent up daytime energy can go into watching birds so you might actually be able to take your shoes off without getting bombarded when you get home.

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Joey is the founder of Lolahemp. In 2015 he and his mother launched Lolawawa's Pet Boutique, an e-commerce store for pets and pet lovers that donates a portion of profits to animal rescue efforts. In 2018 the son and mother duo launched Lolahemp after the success their own rescue chihuahua, Lola, had with hemp products. Joey & Susan are the visionaries behind the brand, oversee day-to-day operations & marketing, and run all of the company's philanthropic efforts.