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When it comes to cat gear, we all have a list of “needs” (healthy food, a safe carrier, litter) and a bunch of items that fall into the “want” category (a self-cleaning litter box, perhaps). Where do cat trees land? Since most models don’t come cheap and take up valuable floor space, it’s worth asking: do cats need a cat tree?
To explore the benefits of cat trees—and to find out if they’re essential for feline health and happiness—we interviewed veterinarians Megan Conrad, BVMS, and Jessica Taylor, DVM. Here’s what the experts have to say on cat trees—and why you might want to consider adding one to your home.
Why Do Cats Like Cat Trees?
What’s the appeal of a cat tree to a cat?
For one thing, they tap into a cat’s innate desire for height. Dr. Megan Conrad, a veterinarian working with telehealth pet service Hello Ralphie, explains: “While humans live in a horizontal world, a cat’s environment also includes vertical space. Since cats have a history of being both a predator and a prey animal, being high up is an advantage for them.”
Cats naturally seek high vantage points to keep tabs on approaching threats—and a cat tree can provide a safe escape from ground-level nuisances like dogs, toddlers, and vacuum cleaners. In short, part of the appeal of a cat tree is just plain safety.
Beyond their vertical appeal, cat trees are designed to meet several other feline needs. “The vertical post on a cat tree mimics a tree trunk to encourage scratching, while elevated podiums and shelters serve as opportunities to hide and rest,” says Dr. Jessica Taylor, Vice President of Veterinary Medicine at Petfolk. With tiered levels for leaping and a variety of textures for scratching, trees are also great for encouraging exercise, Dr. Taylor tells Rover.
Last (but definitely not least), there’s the mental stimulation cat trees offer—whether that’s with dangling toys, puzzle boxes, or just a smart location, as Dr. Conrad recommends. “A cat tree strategically placed in front of a window can offer your kitty the mental stimulation of the outdoors—without the risk.”
These benefits aren’t just theoretical: there’s research to back them up. “One study of cats living in a research facility showed that adding shelving units to their living space reduced anti-social behavior among the cats,” Dr. Conrad explains.
When you consider all the ways a tree can enrich your cat’s space, this should come as no surprise. “Encouraging appropriate play and providing safe spaces reduces aggression between cats—and toward their humans,” agrees Dr. Taylor.
So, cat trees are beneficial. Smart, even. But are they essential? Not exactly.
“A cat tree isn’t a critical necessity for keeping your cat happy—IF they have other options for climbing and scratching,” Dr. Conrad informs us. Cats don’t necessarily need a cat tree to thrive. What they do need is regular physical and mental stimulation. And a cat tree is an easy and effective way to meet those needs.
Types of Cat Trees—and How They Work
The world of cat trees is vast and varied: there are free-standing trees, wall-mounted trees, small trees, towering trees, carpeted trees, wooden trees, and more. And some are better than others.
The most important feature of any cat tree is quality construction. Sturdiness is a must. “If the structure is over a few feet tall, look for one that can be anchored or secured to prevent it from tipping over,” Dr. Taylor advises.
Since no benefits can be derived from a cat tree your cat doesn’t like, the next step is to consider your particular kitty. Dr. Conrad suggests watching your cat’s habits to help you figure out what kind of tree to get: “What do they like to scratch? Horizontal or vertical surfaces? Is there a texture they prefer? The answers can help you find something they’re more likely to be excited about.”
If you’re not sure, a basic carpeted cat tree is a good place to start—something simple and straightforward to give your cat some vertical space and gauge their level of interest before you commit to a pricier or more elaborate model. The Amazon Basics cat tree, for example, offers seven pillars for scratching and several levels for perching so you can see what features attract your kitty at a reasonable price.
If you have multiple kitties to entertain, consider a tree with all the bells and whistles. We like this Go Pet Club Tree that offers a little bit of everything. The varied tiers and covered condos make it a good choice for multi-cat households (provided you have the space). Playful cats and energetic kittens can entertain themselves with the included puzzle box, dangling toys, scratching posts, and swinging hammock.
Of course, not everyone has room for such a colossal piece of furniture. If you’re short on space, try wall-mounted cat trees, like this playground from CatastophiCreations, which offers a unique way to save on valuable floor space. It’s great for climbers and jumpers—but not so much for sprawlers or heavy scratchers.
For more on how to pick a cat tree, check out “The Best Cat Trees and Furniture To Entertain Cats of All Kinds.”
Does Your Cat Need a Cat Tree for Health and Happiness? The Verdict
Ultimately, no, your cat doesn’t need a cat tree to live their best life. What they do require, however, are opportunities to act on their feline instincts, such as scratching, climbing, and hiding. And a cat tree gives them a safe space to do just that.
But if you find the cost or size of cat trees prohibitive, there are alternative options for kitty enrichment. “Buying a cat tree isn’t essential, and you can add things to your home that serve the same need,” Dr. Taylor tells us, recommending the installation of simple wall shelves for vertical space. “If you do your own, stagger the shelves so your cat can climb from one to the next,” suggests Dr. Conrad, adding that window perches are another feline favorite that offers a view of the outside world—without the large footprint.
It’s also important to provide cats with an appropriate surface for scratching. So, if you don’t have a tree to fulfill that purpose, a small but sturdy scratching post is a good idea.
How We Chose
The cat trees featured here were selected based on a combination of our own hands-on testing, a comprehensive look at customer reviews across a wide variety of retail platforms, and interviews with veterinary and behavioral experts. We prioritized cat trees with quality materials, stable design, and aesthetic appeal. In addition, we considered the number of condos, perches, and extras like scratching posts and toys. We’re also guided by the experience of living and playing alongside our own much-loved and strongly opinionated cats, who are never stingy with their feedback.