Modern Medicine, Old-Fashioned Care

Jun 8, 2022 | Fast Facts

Why Cats Love to Climb (and Answers to Other Feline Mysteries)

Cat quirks. Pet parents know and love them – or, at least, endure them. Whatever the case, each time one of our feline friends paws at a tchotchke in its path until it topples off the table or gets a case of the zoomies at 3 a.m., we have one nagging question running through our brains: why?

Dr. Mimi Fitchett, DVM, cat parent and Doylestown Veterinary Hospital team member, sheds some light on the idiosyncrasies and straight-up mysteries associated with cat behavior.

Why do cats love to climb?

“Cats are interesting because they are both predators and prey for other animals,” says Dr. Fitchett.

“When they climb, which they are beautifully designed to do, it gives them a vantage point to look down on things.”

Things like small rodents and woodland creatures that would scurry along the ground – prey that they are genetically predisposed to hunt. Cats also climb because, historically, they have hunted birds. And birds live in trees, up high.

“Being up higher just allows them to see these things,” she says.

“It also allows them to escape. If you’ve ever had dogs near cats outdoors, the first thing a cat will do is run to something they can get up vertically.”

The general misconception, she adds, is that cats can get stuck in a tree – recalling the image of the fireman called upon to rescue the helpless kitty in distress.

“It’s sort of a myth that they get stuck up there,” she says. “Although I’m sure there are the few cats out there who do. But they work their way down backward, actually, very well.”

Verticality is imperative for our cats, Dr. Fitchett says. The higher they climb, the calmer they feel.

“It’s a safety zone for them. If you have multiple cats in the household – even if you have just a single cat – you [should purchase multiple] cat trees. You can also build shelves just for your cats that they can navigate vertically.”

Dr. Fitchett says that more and more veterinary offices are attempting to implement shelves in their exam rooms. “It’s a challenge because we ultimately need to get them back down to examine them.”

And perhaps one of the biggest reasons why cats love to climb is that it gives them a sense of liberation. After all, indoor cats would love to be outdoors hunting.

“Being able to have access to a window is great for them. That’s their literal window to the world.”

Why do cats knock things off tables?  

They say curiosity killed the cat. We don’t know about that – but it certainly keeps them busy.

Anyone who’s spent any quality time with our whiskered pals knows that they just can’t keep their paws to themselves sometimes and enjoy investigating things they discover in their paths, from tissues to television remotes to collectible trinkets.

The easy answer for this is: they’re just having some fun.

“They are incredibly curious,” Dr. Fitchett says. “They want to play, and they want to hunt.”

So not only does batting things that they happen upon throughout their day give them something to do, but it’s also a way that our cats explore and learn while keeping themselves at a safe distance.

AND it’s hugely instinctual.

Giving an obstacle a good swat with a paw is a fine way of determining if it’s an inanimate object – or something live in need of hunting.

“I think [in many cases], it imitates how hunting would be for them – given the chance to hunt,” Dr. Fitchett says.

Why do cats love boxes so much?

Just like climbing high gives our cats a sense of security, so too does hiding in a good, old-fashioned box.

Buy a cat a large luxury toy and watch amazed (and $100 poorer) as they prefer the packaging material.

Cats, as Dr. Fitchett said, are ambush predators. They prefer the sneak attack method and lunging from the darkness at their prey. That newly empty box from Amazon scratches that itch in a big way. It’s a safe place where your cat can be itself while not being watched by every eye in the house.

But here’s an interesting caveat and side note.

A recent study published in “Applied Animal Behavior Science” discovered that cats were more likely to sit inside a two-dimensional drawing of a square, or a box without walls, suggesting that it provides the same sense of security they receive from being enclosed.

“They do like to get into the smallest space possible,” says Dr. Fitchett. “And they do love a box.”

Why does my cat tear through the house in the middle of the night?

Affectionately referred to as “zoomies,” most cats tend to run full tilt through their homes at the oddest times of the night.

“Again, I think we all tend to think of cats as just our furry little loving friends, but they are highly predatory in the wild,” Dr. Fitchett says. “They are designed to be able to see in dim light much better than we are. They have more rod receptors than cones in their eyes. So, for us, what we consider nighttime is not so much for them.”

In other words, 3 a.m. is just another time to let loose for our cats.

“I really do think they have imaginary friends throughout the house and up and down,” laughs Dr. Fitchett. “It just cracks me up how they sound. One cat can sound like a herd of horses in the middle of the night.”

Also: if their antics wake their people up – all the better.

“It gets us up and gets us to play with them,” Dr. Fitchett says. Or, at least, pay attention to them.

“Some cats enjoy lots and lots of interaction,” she says. “So, even if we get up and we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so tired,’ you know, and we close the door or whatever – it’s still an interaction. It may not be the most positive interaction, but they still got a reaction from us. I think they train us quite frequently.”