Do Cats Really Need A Cat Tree?


do cats need cat trees

Most cats love a good cat tree! It gives them a chance to run, climb and play on a piece of furniture that’s just for them. And while the idea of a cat tree sounds pretty cool at first, when you realize that most of them are just massive walls of beige carpet that will inevitably be covered with cat hair…you might have second thoughts.

Naturally, you might start wondering…do cats really need a cat tree?

While a cat doesn’t specifically need a cat tree, they do need access to heights, a comfortable place to nap, and an appropriate area to scratch. A cat tree satisfies all these needs and without one, cats may find a less appropriate outlet for these behaviors including things like jumping on the counters and scratching furniture. 

In other words, you don’t have to have a cat tree but you do need to find a way to satisfy some of your cat’s instinctual needs. Usually, a cat tree is the easiest way to do this but there are plenty of other unique (and more stylish) options out there. One of my favorites is this faux-tree from On2Pets that’s designed to look like an actual tree. Many folks will like the look of that tree over the traditional carpet wall but it’s still satisfying several feline needs.

But before we look at other options, let’s take a deeper dive into what natural instincts cat trees satisfy and what you can do if you aren’t exactly crazy about the look (or the price) of the typical cat tree.

Why Does A Cat Need A Tree?

Cat trees satisfy a lot of needs for our cats and I don’t use the word “need” lightly. Cats really do need a place to climb, scratch, and call their own.

But that doesn’t mean the only way to make our cats feel comfortable is with a big carpet tower!

Let’s look at these needs, why they matter, and in the next section we’ll talk about how we could go about keeping our cats happy without going the cat tree route.

The Need For Territory

Cats are naturally territorial creatures and a cat tree not only gives them a space to call their own, but it also gives them a great vantage point to survey their kingdom (AKA your house).

The folks at International Cat Care explain that typically “A cat’s territory consists of a core area, or den, where it feels secure enough to sleep, eat, play and potentially enjoy social interaction. This forms the hub of the territory which is the area beyond the core area that the cat actively defends against invasion from others. Beyond this lies the home or hunting range that constitutes the extent of the area over which the cat will roam.”

But just what kind of territory do cats usually roam beyond the den?

During one study of feral and free-roaming house cats, researchers found that one male kitty had a range of over 1,300 acres! Taking a vantage point in a tree is a great way to see what’s going on in a larger part of your cat’s territory while still staying safe and with 1,300 acres to survey you’re going to need a big tree!

Of course, that’s an example from an outdoor kitty, and while it might not always seem like it, even the cat that’s indoors 100% of the time still has this territorial drive and will consider something their turf.  What exactly that is can be difficult to figure out and as the ASPCA points out “A cat’s perceived territory could be the entire house or part of it, the yard, the block or the neighborhood.”

For many cats, the cat tree will quickly become that core area, or den, that cats can call home. While you can’t force this to happen, having a dedicated piece of cat furniture is certainly a step in the right direction. A cat tree is clearly only meant for your feline friend and it’s a place they can call their own. If your only pet is a cat then you could probably satisfy the need for territory in many other ways, but if your cat is sharing the home with other cats or dogs a cat tree can be a great way to establish the household boundary lines.

The Need To Scratch

All cats, even declawed cats, need to scratch! While cats do use furniture, trees, and scratching posts to keep their claws from growing out of control, scratching actually does a lot more than just sharpen and trim claws! We just covered cats’ need for territory but scratching is actually tied to this too. That’s because cats have special scent glands in their paws that they use to identify their territory while they scratch. So when your cat scratches, they’re also letting the world know, “Hey, this is mine, too!” That’s part of the reason why cats tend to focus on scratching couches and other furniture that humans use. They get a whiff of all the interesting social smells and want to mark that spot as theirs too!

Scratching is also practically hard-wired into your cat’s brain as a result of millions of years of evolution so it’s going to take a lot to get cats to drop this behavior. By providing cats with a cat tree you can satisfy this need and ensure that they get this behavior out on something appropriate- instead of your furniture!

The Need For Exercise

A cat tree is also a great way for cats to get some “gym time”. Many cats love to climb and play in their cat tree- whether that’s with you, by themselves, or with other pets. My cat Debbie absolutely loves playing hide and seek inside the tube of her cat tree.

But many cat trees also have built-in toys that dangle. While not all cats are going to be self-sufficient enough to play with these dangly toys on their own, just vertically climbing straight up the tree is more exercise than many cats will get on their own.

The Need To Climb

Cats love to climb but scaling a cat tree or bookshelf is more than just a good time. It’s also another major part of our cat’s feline instincts. Again, part of it ties back to the territorial nature of our cats and the idea that climbing a tree (or a tower of carpet) is a great way for cats to survey their territory.

But there’s more to climbing than just taking stock of their turf. High up perches can also help cats feel safe and secure in their home. While we often think of our cats as apex predators, and they are, it’s important to consider that they’re also prey. Cats are small enough that they could easily become a meal to larger predators and spending time in trees is a great way to stay safe all while being able to spot potential prey.

Again, you can satisfy this need in other ways but without a cat tree felines are more likely to climb things like bookshelves, furniture, and of course the counter.

But Not Every Cat Wants A Cat Tree: Understanding Your Cat’s Style

Just like different humans have different styles and preferences, so do our cats! So before you start feeling bad for not already having a cat tree, you should consider what kind of preferences your cat has or as Jackson Galaxy puts it, what kind of vertical style does your cat has.

Galaxy breaks down cat styles into three categories, one of which he calls tree dwellers. He explains that these are cats that “can be found anywhere off of the ground. These cats get their confidence from being up high and seeing what’s going on, preferring to be on a chair or on top of the couch.”

These are cats that especially need a cat tree to satisfy their natural preferences and vertical inclinations.

But that doesn’t mean every cat prefers a cat tree.

Jackson explains that some cats also actually prefer to hang out on the ground. He calls them beach dwellers and explains that these kitties “prefer having all four feet on the ground. But rather than waiting under a coffee table, they like being out in the open, as they send a message to you and everyone else in the home: You have to walk around me.”

I’ve certainly seen my fair share of cats that send a clear message that I’m the one that needs to be adjusting my route.

While I might lose my certified crazy cat guy card by saying this…these “beach dweller” style cats may not require a cat tree. That doesn’t mean that they don’t need their own territory and a place to scratch…but these cats might not get as much out of the vertical space that a cat tree brings.

There are certainly cats that don’t use cat trees and plenty of disappointed cat parents online that report their cat just doesn’t use their brand new tree.

Still, I’ve found that these cats are the exception and not the rule. It’s also rare that a cat would completely turn down a small tree with a comfortable cubby so picking up a cat tree is unlikely to be a total waste.

If you’d like to learn more about the three cat styles and try to figure out which vertical preference your cat has it’s worth checking out this video from Jackon Galaxy.

Cat Tree Objections and Alternatives

We’ve already established that it’s more about satisfying your cat’s natural instincts instead of just defaulting to a cat tree. While a cat tree is the simplest solution 95% of the time there are other options that may be worth exploring.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably still on the fence as to whether or not you want to actually invest in a cat tree so let’s look at some of the most common objections to cat trees and what you can do about it.

Cats Trees Are Too Expensive

This is probably the most common objection that gets thrown out regarding cat trees…and for good reason. There are some cat trees that are surprisingly expensive.

But you can also find plenty at very budget-friendly prices.

One of my favorites is this 33.5″ cat tree from ZENY that you can find on Amazon. If you’re willing to go for a bigger tree as long as you get a good value, it’s worth checking out Go Pet Club on Amazon. They’ve got big, quality cat trees and very competitive prices.

But don’t just look at the price of that or any cat tree without considering how long it’s going to last. For most folks, a cat tree is going to last at least a few years if not much longer. Of course, if you’ve got a couple of giant Maine Coon cats you might need to look at a more heavy-duty tree or expect your cat tree to not last as long but in most cases, you’re going to get a whole of use out of the purchase.

When you break down the cost per year, suddenly it doesn’t seem so crazy to spend a little for a decent cat tree.

If you’re crafty you could also make your own cat tree. There are dozens of YouTube videos walking you through DIY projects and you don’t have to necessarily go for something huge on your first project. I’ve seen people connect a few IKEA tables, wrap the legs in some sisal rope and call it a cat tree.

Does it work? Absolutely!

Is it beautiful? Not exactly.

But it’s certainly budget-friendly!

Cats Trees Are Ugly

Besides price, the biggest objection to cat trees is usually the overall look of them. While style is subjective, most folks wouldn’t think that a wall of carpet is exactly high-style.

But good news, there are a variety of options that aren’t ugly!

One of my favorites is this cat tree modeled after real trees on Amazon. This roughly 5-foot cat tree features faux leaves that completely drop the classic carpet style. It’s still tall enough to satisfy most cats’ urge to climb and the leaves give cats a chance to hide. All while adding some style to your home.

There are also dozens of boutique and luxury cat tree manufacturers across the internet that make literal works of art for you and your cat. You could also get creative, if you have the budget, and commission someone to create a cat tree that perfectly matches your space and style.

If you’d prefer to leave the entire tree concept behind, cat-friendly shelving might make a good option. You can position these shelves wherever you’d like and their small design allows them to blend into a living space rather than standout. These are especially good options for smaller areas that might easily get overpowered by a 5-foot tree.

While you’ve got a lot of options, this set of three on Amazon is one of my favorites. Besides the very cool drop-down section for cats to crawl through, I love that the shelves are covered in the sisal material that cats love to scratch. So with a couple of low profile shelves, you’ve got scratching and heights covered. While some cats will need more scratching areas than the shelves it’s still a great start!

Cats Trees Take Up Too Much Space

Cat trees really do come in all shapes and sizes but if you’ve got a very limited area to work with then it just might not make sense to work one in. In cases like this, it’s important to break down your cat’s needs and preferences rather than get too stuck on finding the perfect tree.

For height-loving cats in small spaces, the sisal-covered shelves make a great option. But you could also “catify” a piece of human furniture and make it cat friendly. That could be as simple as leaving one shelf on a bookcase empty or setting up a window perch. This suction cup window perch is one of my favorites and while it’s not scratchable, it still gives cats an awesome outlet for heights while taking up very little space.

At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for creativity! If you put your mind to it, you can really catify just about anything in order to save space!

How Tall Does A Cat Tree Need To Be?

So if you’ve decided that a cat tree is the best way to satisfy your cat’s natural instincts, you might be wondering how tall it has to be to keep your height-loving feline happy?

In most cases, I recommend that a cat tree be at least 36 inches off the ground and you can learn more about why in this article. The short version is that 36 inches is tall enough to make the cat tree more appealing than most furniture and countertops.

What Happens If I Don’t Get A Cat Tree?

Maybe you’re still unconvinced that your cat needs a tree. So what will happen if you skip it all entirely and let your cat figure it out on their own?

Most of the behaviors that cat trees provide an outlet for are going to happen no matter what. It’s just a part of cats being cats but without an appropriate outlet, you might find your cat scratching, climbing, and claiming things you don’t want them to.

For example, while cats that like to surf the counter could have a variety of motivations (including food), it could also be an issue of searching for the perfect perch. Connecting this behavior to the need for a cat tree isn’t always obvious but if there’s a cat tree that’s an entire foot about the counter and it’s super-comfortable why would any height-loving feline go for the hard countertop instead?

It’s worth considering the kind of behavior your cat is already taking part in and whether or not a cat tree could redirect in a positive way but realize it’s not always so obvious.

Do Declawed Cats Need Cat Trees?

Yep, even declawed cats need a cat tree! Just because a cat doesn’t have thier claws doesn’t change anything about the deeply rooted instincts that are driving their desire to climb, claim, and yes even scratch! Because declawed cats don’t have the same climbing ability as other cats, they may benefit from a slightly different kind of cat tree that has a bit more accessibility. I recently wrote finding the perfect cat tree for declawed felines and you can find that post here.

Can Cats Share A Cat Tree?

Okay, you’re sold on picking up a cat tree but what if you have multiple cats in the same household? How many cat trees will you need and can multiple cats successfully share a cat tree?

It’s a good rule of thumb to have at least one cat tree per cat in order to avoid any kitty conflicts. Of course, larger trees or a larger home will make it easier for cats to divvy up the spots and share. Still, to create the most cat-friendly home possible one tree per cat is always best. 

Why is this is the case?

Even though it might not always be obvious to us humans, cats are actually very territorial creatures and their social structure depends on each feline having their own specific territory. While cats can certainly break a cat tree into their own respective sections, our feline friends aren’t actually that good at sharing and too much of it can quickly lead to conflict.

While it might seem like a pain to add more cat furniture to your home, cats really do need cat trees to satisfy a long list of hard-wired instincts including the need for territory. But you don’t have to break the bank on every tree. One of my favorite budget trees is this 33.5″ inch tower on from ZENY which you can see on Amazon. It’s really got a little bit of everything (ramp, cubby, huge platform, scratching post) without breaking the bank and can be a great way to hit the one tree per cat guideline.

But it is exactly that…a guideline.

So let’s take a closer look at why cats aren’t so great at sharing and if we really need a pile of cat trees in every situation.

Once again, it comes back to the idea of territory.

How Do Cats Split Up Their Territory?

While it’s easy for others to tell which house is yours and for everyone in the house to understand which room is yours, cats don’t always see territory in such clean and clear lines.

That means one cat could see the couch, window sill, and chair as their territory and another cat could have their own territory mixed in between all that.

Yeah, it can get pretty confusing but if you pay close attention to your cats then you’ve probably already seen this in action. It’s likely that you can almost always find one of your cats in one spot that just isn’t ever shared. That’s because it’s their territory and your other cat respects it.

But even that isn’t always so clear!

Why You Shouldn’t Try To Define Your Cat’s Territory

The complex social structure and territory definitions for cats isn’t for humans to understand completely! Instead, you’re better off just making sure that your cats have all the appropriate resources they need without having to share.

That means a cat tree, or at least a comfortable equivalent, for each cat.

But it doesn’t end there.

You should also have several food and water bowls throughout the house so that cats aren’t forced to share essential resources. While it might seem like a bit of a pain to double, triple, or quadruple up on everything it’s a lot easier than trying to get a complete understanding of feline politics!

My Cats Seem To Be Sharing Their Cat Tree Just Fine!

There’s a big difference between sharing because you want to and sharing because you have to. In many cases, cats share out of necessity not because it’s in their nature to do so. While that may seem extreme in the case of a cat tree, the fact is cats need to scratch and have a deep instinctual drive to climb trees. In fact, the desire to scratch is so ingrained in our cats that even declawed cats will continue to scratch and should actually have their own scratching post!

They also need to eat and drink so just because they’re sharing their water bowl doesn’t mean they actually want to!

However, with cat trees, it can be a little more complex since cats don’t actually need a tree to get all the benefits that a cat tree provides.

But you might be saying, “Hey, my cats actually cuddle on the same tree. They clearly aren’t cuddling out of necessity!”

Fair point. Remember, that cat territory lines are complex and nuanced. Cats can most certainly share space and even cuddle but if you watch closely you’re likely to notice that there are still spots that just aren’t shared. The goal of providing enough resources is to make sure that the cat tree doesn’t become one of those exclusive territories.

Does It Have To Be A Cat Tree?

It’s more important to think about the needs of your cats instead of the actual tree.

Cat trees satisfy your cat’s instinct for territory but also their need to climb, scratch, and be comfortable. But of course, a cat tree isn’t the only piece of furniture that can do all these things. If your home has multiple places for cats to perch, scratch, and call their own then you might not need a cat tree at all.

Again, that’s why the one cat tree per cat is a guideline. You are able to get away with one cat tree or even no cat tree at all as long as cats aren’t having to fight over key resources. That’s why it’s more important to evaluate your home from a needs and resources perspective rather than just a checklist of stuff.

Still, in most cases, a cat tree is going to be the easiest, and most cost-effective,  way to satisfy your cat’s natural instincts. With the amount of variety in the market, you can also find the perfect tree specific to your cat whether they’re a giant Maine Coon, an older senior kitty, or even declawed there’s a cat tree to cater to them. That’s a lot more difficult to do if you’re looking at shelving or DIY options.

Closing Thoughts

At the end of the day, it’s not a cat tree that felines need but an outlet for their natural instincts to scratch, climb and claim their territory. A cat tree is usually the easiest way to do this but they’re, admittedly, not for everyone.

But with dozens of budget-friendly and sometimes very unique options, there’s a good chance that you can find a cat tree that actually works for your home. Or at least one that you don’t hate. You’ve also got plenty of non-cat tree options including special shelving and window perches along with tapping into your creative side and converting existing furniture into cat-friendly havens.

Cats of any age, even senior kitties, can enjoy a cat tree and while we might not always love the way it looks in our house, watching how much our cats love a good nap or climb on the cat tree does make it worth it!

Logan M.

Logan has always loved everything about cats! Growing up with a family full of pets and a lifelong passion for animals he pursued work in the veterinary industry. After 10 years, he started BetterWithCats.net to help cat owners learn more about their feline friends.

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