Vertical Space is Good Enrichment for Cats

Cats make good use of added vertical space, study shows, showing that it's a great idea to let cats use vertical space in your home via shelves and walkways.

A tabby cat relaxes on a shelf


By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A study by Emma Desforges (Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition) et al finds that adding a vertical screen is good enrichment for cats. And while the study used cats that live at the Waltham research centre, the results suggest pet cats could benefit too.

The scientists took an Ikea bookcase called Kallax in which the shelves are subdivided. They put half the backing on one side and half on the other, so that some shelves faced one way and the rest the other way (8 spaces arranged 2 x 4 per side). Then they put it in the middle of a room.

If you’re thinking crazy cat lady organizer, you’re not far off, but this version is taller.


Cats using the vertical shelves as enrichment
Reproduced from Desforges et al (2016) under Creative Commons licence


They observed the cats for set time intervals for two days before the screen was added, four days while it was there, and two days after it was removed.

Cats used the screen and spent more time off the ground when it was there, even though they already had some shelves around the walls of the room. The spaces allowed them to get away from other cats if they wanted.


There were some effects of time of day, but in general the cats showed fewer unfriendly behaviours when the screen was there.

When the screen was taken away, unfriendly behaviours increased.

And although the screen gave cats the chance to hide from each other, they still engaged in the same number of friendly behaviours before and during the screen phase.

The scientists write, 
“In summary, exploiting the unused vertical space by the addition of stand-alone shelving should be considered a valuable resource for the cat by increasing useable space and reducing agonistic interactions, with the caveat that the shelving remains a permanent fixture or for rolling replacement of enrichment objects with alternative forms of similar value.”

In other words, once you’ve given them some shelves, don’t take them away without having a replacement because they will miss them.

29 cats took part in the study. They live in four different groups at the Waltham pet nutrition centre. Enrichment is especially important for captive cats like this.

But indoor cats could benefit too. These days, many people keep their cats indoors because of concerns about the risks of being outside (coyotes and cars, for example). Using vertical height, as in this study, is one way to adapt the indoor environment for cats. 


A grey cat sits at the top of a cat tree
Let cats use vertical space within your home


This study suggests it would be particularly important in a multi-cat household, but individual cats will also benefit from the opportunities to use vertical space and have nice vantage points from which to survey the room.

You do not have to rush out to Ikea, although the Kallax shelving does look like it’s designed to provide cubby holes for cats. Perhaps you already have some bookshelves and can clear space on them so your cats can use the shelves. Other options include shelves mounted on the walls, vertical scratching posts affixed to walls with a shelf at the top for cats to climb up to, or tall cat trees for cats to perch in.

If you're setting up cat shelves, make sure that there is more than one way up and down. This is especially important if you have more than one cat in your home, because you don't want one cat to be able to block another cat from coming down. 

You don't have to build something complicated. For example, the Ruby Road cat hammock comes with two steps to make a route up to the hammock. The Pet Fusion cat activity wall shelves come as a 3-piece set or as an individual shelf.  You can also use cat stairs to make a ladder up to a shelf. 

An elegant option is the CatastrophiCreations cat play set which comes in different colour options for the wood and canvas. 

You can also get very tall wall-mounted cat scratching posts, such as this stylish one from Haptkitty which is made from pine and has coordinating items available, such as cat hammocks and tree houses

If you’re feeling creative, Ikeahackers have lots of suggestions for re-modelling Ikea furniture for cats, and Ikea now have cat inserts for the Kallax shelving.

The full paper is open access.

For more enrichment ideas, check out my post enrichment tips for cats (that many people miss). And don’t forget your cat would like food puzzle toys too.

To learn more about how to have a happy cat, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy which is full of practical tips. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Reference Desforges, E., Moesta, A., & Farnworth, M. (2016). Effect of a shelf-furnished screen on space utilisation and social behaviour of indoor group-housed cats (Felis silvestris catus) Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 178, 60-68 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2016.03.006

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