Cats love climbing, period. Just ask your curtains, refrigerator, and bookshelves—there’s no height in your home your cat won’t willingly reach if given the chance and, if you’re lucky, permission. Outdoors, cats are equally opportunistic, perching their little paws atop vehicles and roofs, but yes, trees do seem to be common targets for cat claws, and there’s certainly historical precedent for this: The first cat lived in the trees.
Proailurus is widely accepted to be the first true cat and, therefore, common ancestor to all of today’s furballs from the lions in Africa to the Siamese on your sofa. Slinking through forests 30 million years ago, this little guy wasn’t much bigger than your own kitty but looked more like a mongoose than the cats of today, and we haven’t found fossils of anyone really beginning to resemble our modern-day cats until around 20 million years ago. But here’s the thing you really need to know for now: Proailurus (whose name actually means “first cat”), spent much of its life in trees, and this affinity doesn’t appear to have diminished through time. So yes, cats began in trees and we shouldn’t be surprised to find them deftly scaling them today, but it’s more relevant to leave trees out of the equation and simply assert that cats love climbing.
Okay, but why?
Well! Now we’re getting to the heart of it. As usual, there’s no single, all-encompassing answer to this kitty question, but there are several things we do know conclusively. Let’s start with the reasons that current cats share with their old friend Proailurus: offense and defense. The common denominator with these two evolutionary essentials is an improved visual field, but this isn’t the only element at play here. Still, we’ll begin there. The first cat and today’s cat were similarly small critters, so consider how limited a tiny furball’s field of vision is when on the ground. Higher up in trees, a cat has a greatly improved visual scope of the scene below, which helps him both to surprise prey and to spot predators that need to be avoided. Beyond vision, perching among leaves and branches helps disguise potentially vulnerable cats (like sleeping kitties!) from wandering predators and also gives them a serious surprise element for their own attacks.
Indoor cats don’t really need to hunt or hide, though. Why do they still love climbing?
Cats have evolved and diverged in many ways since the days of Proailurus, and domestic cats are genetically distinguishable from wild species. We’ve not only biologically affected how domestic cats look, but we’ve genetically impacted some key behaviors, including those related to fear, play, and learning, simply by cohabitating with them for thousands of years. One reason indoor cats still love climbing, and our favorite reason, is purely for fun! Domestic cats are inherently playful, thoughtful creatures and, just as kids love climbing trees and running up and down playground equipment, cats appear to simply enjoy the thrill of it, too. And, while they may (hopefully) never have a survival need for keeping their climbing skills at peak, most cats practice claw training for the majority of their lives. Aside from powerful haunches, claws are what give cats their incredible edge in climbing, and most kitties will seek to keep their claw skills, um, sharp, whether they’re outdoors or not. In reality, you already know this—you just may not have known you know this. See them climbing curtains or digging their claws into the side of the sofa during a gorgeous stretch? This is training, not just disobedience. In fact, your cat feels an innate need to do this, which is one critical reason you should have a modern cat tree with ample scratching posts, like the Ivy from Mau, in your home. It’s fine to discourage your furbabies from ruining the furniture, but they need an appropriate place to sink their claws, stretch their muscles, and practice their skills.
But wait, there’s more . . .
While there shouldn’t be any serious threats to your cat’s life inside your home, Mr. Whiskers doesn’t necessarily know that, and is likely to prefer higher elevations for sleeping, napping, or even just chilling . . . just in case. This is doubly true if your home is one of those fabulous multi-cat households (and, because domestic cats are actually extremely social creatures, contrary to popular belief, this is preferable for any cat family). While, in most cases, a cat benefits tremendously from having another cat in the home, there are still hierarchies to respect, and one four-legger will generally rise to clear dominance in a household. Much like we refer to royalty’s “highness,” a dominant cat will often take the highest available perch in the home. If all of your cats are chill with the system, a single tree with multiple perches will work perfectly, but if your less dominant cats are visibly bummed by their lot in life, consider multiple cat trees so everyone can take the top spot. It won’t upset your dominant cat, and it will easy the emotional blow for the others.
And one more thing . . .
Scientifically speaking, this one is likely more of a bonus and less of a sought-out quality, but higher perches in the home are also warmer and, despite being covered in fur already (except you, Susie Sphynx!), cats are obsessed with cozying up in the warmest spots they can find. While this is probably just a mere perk and not a reason cats are climbing, it certainly doesn’t hurt in a cat’s eternal quest for height.
Fascinating story. 30 million years ago. Thanks for posting.