Vertical Space is Good Enrichment for Cats

Cats make good use of added vertical space, study shows.

A tabby cat relaxes on a shelf

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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 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.

P.S. Sign up now to get my free guide, Seven Secrets to a Happy Cat and learn how to have a better relationship with your pet. 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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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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