Why do cats knock things off shelves?

cats knocking things down

Anyone who has cats has seen them jump on a shelf, desk or table, only to start methodically knocking everything onto the floor. From cutlery to pens to books, down they go, with the nudge of a paw. Why do cats do this? Are they just being naughty, or there another reason for this behavior?

My own cat, Bowie, usually engages in this activity when I’m busy doing something. I hear a “plunk”, look up, and see him sitting on my desk, staring at a pen on the floor, whiskers forward and eyes wide. He locks eyes with me and meows. I ignore him. Soon, there’s another “plunk”. A book joins the pen. Then an eraser. Then a Tyrion Lannister bobble-head. My parents’ cat does the same thing. And YouTube is rife with videos of cats knocking things down from high places.

So what’s the deal? There are actually several reasons behind this activity.

1. It satisfies predatory instincts

Mammals have what neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp calls “seeking” emotions. It’s the urge to seek something out, to experience engaged curiosity, intense interest, and eager anticipation. Predators like cats turn on their “seeking circuit” by watching things move rapidly. It’s fun and feels good to watch or chase something that moves, and knocking something down fills that need. That’s probably why cats head to high places to engage in this activity, because the drop is longer.

What’s even better is if the object bounces. For example, my pen anti-climactically plopped, as did the book and Tyrion Lannister (albeit, with a disapproving head wobble). Bowie gave the kitty equivalent of a shrug. But when the eraser bounced, he eyed it steadily, did his crouching tiger pose, and pounced. He chased and batted it until it was good and “dead”. As an indoor cat, he doesn’t have natural prey to chase (aside from the occasional rogue fly), so he created his own prey.

2. It provides novelty

Your cat may have dozens of toys at his disposal, but like many animals and people, cats like new things. If it’s not theirs, it’s new to them and fair game to play with, chew or chase. Novelty promotes mental stimulation. It keeps feline minds active to discover and interact with new things, and learn how they move, taste, sound and smell. Even if they’re your things. (Which, let’s be honest, are no longer yours once you’ve agreed to live with a cat.)

3. It gets your attention

Cats are smart. Stubborn, but smart. They are capable of absorbing what’s going on around them and making cause-and-effect associations. Also, despite their reputation for being solitary creatures, cats are pretty social. Combine these traits, and you have an animal that will learn how to get your attention and do so whenever he desires.

For instance, when Bowie wants my attention, he first rubs against my legs, meows, or gets as close to my field of vision as possible (like leaping on my keyboard or lying on the book I’m reading). If this fails, he launches Operation Long-Live-The-King. He leaps onto something nearby (a table, desk or shelf), looks at me, then knocks over my stuff. I know he does it for attention in these instances, because he barely bats an eye at the fallen objects. He watches for my reaction. If I ignore him, he does it again. But if I give him some loving or playtime, he feels his demands are adequately met, calms down, and curls up at my feet.

For many people, cats that knock things off shelves and tables are amusing and endearing – until, that is, they break something valuable or upset a plant pot. There are ways to curb this activity if it gets out of hand (see sidebar), but otherwise, just know that it’s part of sharing life with a cat!

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