Why Do Some Cats Like to Sit on Shoulders?

young man with long curly hair glances at young calico cat on shoulder

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Maybe you've seen one, or maybe you have one yourself. Some cats love to go shoulder riding, vaulting up to their owners to get a better view of the world around them. A so-called "shoulder cat" is entertaining, sure, but it also demonstrates behaviors that have existed far back in felines' evolution story. Cats love high places, so the fact that domesticated cats combine that love with an opportunity to bond with a human is no surprise.

white cat perches on back of older asian man in sunlight

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Cats Like Heights

For cats, the primary appeal for perching on a human's shoulders is height. That attraction to height is programmed into cats' biology, as early felines used tall places for both hunting and protection; "Staying in higher places was most likely a behavior that, for smaller cats, was associated with an increased probability for survival," says Dr. Wailani Sung, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.

A high vantage point gives cats the ability to observe more of their environment, which was advantageous for early cats for both spotting prey and identifying potential dangers. While domesticated cats may not need to worry about predators and are only hunting the occasional mouse, that sense of security given by height has remained.

But, why would a pet cat choose to hop on a person's shoulders instead of sticking to its cat tree? According to certified cat behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson, there is an element of attention-seeking: "If people like it and they think it's cute, they're going to praise them, pet them, and before they know it, the cat's going to do it on command," she explained. Additionally, shoulder cats use this behavior to be at the same height as a person without the restraining feeling of being held by them — they have the ability to leave at any point without struggling out of someone's arms.

tabby cat crawls on woman's shoulder as she draws on canvas

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Shoulder Cats Aren't That Common

Though cats have a pretty universal attraction to heights, only some are shoulder cats. This often has to do with a cat's physical abilities and limitations. Young, energetic cats will be quick to spring themselves onto someone's shoulders, while older, more lethargic cats won't have the interest. Additionally, balancing oneself on a surface as precarious as a person's shoulders requires a fair amount of athleticism, so heavier, less agile cats are unlikely to make the leap.

That said, keep in mind that each cat is different. For some, jumping and resting on your shoulders will be a natural move. However, not every cat that has the physical ability will have the desire. Cats can be trained to do this as a kind of trick, but only if they are receptive to it. No matter a cat's age, weight, or agility, they will not do something they don't want to do.

gray cat gazes at camera while climbing on man's back

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Be Careful With Your Shoulder Cat

There are some safety concerns that come with shoulder cats. If you train or encourage your cat to leap onto your shoulders from the floor, there is also a chance it will vault from the top of the dresser across the room without warning. If you are startled, it may create a negative experience for the cat. The best thing you can do is try to be on alert when your cat is scaling or perching atop tall furniture.

It is not recommended to take your cat for a shoulder ride outside. Even the calmest of animals can be spooked by a truck driving by or a dog across the street, and being startled could result in the cat pouncing off and running away. If you insist on taking your cat for a stroll outside, make sure it is on a leash and harness.

None of this means you should discourage the behavior completely, though. As long as you take the appropriate safety measures, you and your shoulder cat can both enjoy spending time together in this quirky way.