By Carol McCarthy
So, your cat clawed his way to the top of your custom draperies and left them in shreds. The bad news is that you can’t blame your cat for this because it’s your fault. The good news is that you can do something about it.
Why Do Cats Climb Curtains and Window Screens?
Regardless of age, gender, breed, and whether they have been “fixed,” your cat is simply behaving normally, said Dr. Carlo Siracusa, DVM, clinical assistant professor in behavior medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
This is true whether you have a high energy breed, like an Abyssinian, or a low energy breed, like a Persian. “Cats' bodies are made to climb and use vertical spaces as much as horizontal spaces,” he said.
Climbing is a problem only because the behavior is unwanted or damaging, said Siracusa. “If given unrestricted access to places with long curtains, most cats will end up damaging them just because it is fun and in their nature,” he said, adding, “we should provide them with opportunities to perform this behavior in a way that is acceptable to us.”
If your cat were outdoors, he would have access to plenty of elevated spaces and would readily climb up on them, Siracusa said. “They climb trees for finding safe spots, for scanning the environment, for catching prey, and for fun,” he explained.
Dr. Brian Collins, DVM, a lecturer in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, agreed. “Cats are naturally inquisitive, and it’s their natural inclination to want to climb,” he said. Cats want to get up high because it gives them a better vantage point for spotting prey, but also because cats themselves are at risk from larger predators. “They are [both] hunters and hunted,” said Collins.
That hard-wired predator/prey behavior does not go away just because your cat lives safely indoors.
Underlying Health Reasons for a Cat’s Climbing
If a cat is feeling stressed, anxious, or unwell, and wants to be left alone, he might seek out a high perch away from other animals and people, Collins said.
Offering multiple surfaces at different levels and quiet places for a cat to escape to is particularly important if you have several cats, said Collins. “They need to get away from each other.”
Certain metabolic disorders, like hyperthyroidism, as well as some medications could make a cat more active in general, but would not necessarily lead to destructive behavior, Siracusa said.
How to Train a Kitten Not to Climb Screens and Drapes
Both doctors stand firm that, from the feline perspective, your cat is not doing anything wrong and should NOT be punished.
Kittens will climb curtains and screens out of boredom, Collins said, so offering them a rich environment will help to curtail the behavior.
Kittens, like children, learn by exploring, experimenting, and playing, and climbing is an important part of this, Collins said. “We don’t want to prevent them from doing it. We want to give them viable alternatives and reward their [good] behavior with treats,” he explained.
Siracusa notes that suppressing a kitten’s natural behavior constitutes an unwarranted punishment that may potentially cause aggression in the growing cat.
A better approach is to provide your young cat with appropriate climbing alternatives that are particularly appealing. For example, provide a comfortable resting spot at the top of a cat tree and place high-value (i.e., favorite) treats there, hang toys with feathers at various levels, keep plenty of engaging cat toys around the house, and play with your kitten for a few minutes every day. If he likes catnip, use that to coax him toward a cat tree, scratching post, or toys.
How to Train an Older Cat to Stop Climbing Curtains
The above approaches work with cats regardless of age, said Collins. The only limit on some cats’ climbing behavior is a loss of agility with age. While many cats calm down as they age, some remain quite active and will need a diverse environment their whole lives, he said.
Create a Safe Climbing Space for Your Cat
Keep in mind that cats who climb door or window screens might be trying to explore the exciting world outside, so do your best to keep them active indoors.
“We can’t think about our house just as floor space, we have to think of the third dimension,” Collins said.
Offer your cat hammocks, shelves, scratching posts, and cat condos or cat trees where he can climb for safety and fun. And try limiting access to areas with long curtains or screens, or tie back the curtains.
If you have the space, set up a designated climbing room for your cat. Collins suggests arranging shelves and furniture so your cat can jump safely from one level to another, and making it interesting, with toys and treats hidden in different places.
You need not spend a lot of money on cat trees or toys. Both Collins and Siracusa suggest using what you have on hand. If you want to try the DIY route, you can build your own cat condo with wood and carpet remnants, or attach carpet swatches to the step surfaces of a small to medium height step-ladder to give your cat a climbing and scratching space, as well as a space to rest and view his world from on high.
Even simpler ways to keep your cat entertained include tying feathers or a ball to the end of a strong stick and using it to mimic a small prey animal that your cat can chase and catch, or bringing home a strong cardboard box from the grocery store and cutting an entry hole in it.
Both doctors stressed that if you do not provide interesting and safe ways for your cat to climb without doing damage, then, yes, he will turn to the curtains, screens, sofa, and whatever else he can dig his claws into.
“Just give your cats the fun they deserve at home; otherwise they will find their own way to have it,” Siracusa said.