Why Do Some Cats Like to Sit on Shoulders?

Here's what's behind this quirky behavior.

Person walking in city with young calico cat on shoulder

Joel Carillet / Getty Images

Have you ever seen a cat hop on top of its human companion's shoulders? These so-called "shoulder cats"—a stark contrast to their lap-dog counterparts—are more than just tricksters; they're exhibiting a behavior that can tell a lot about what a cat is thinking and feeling.

Cats have a penchant for heights and may spring towards a shoulder perch on its own or with some friendly coaxing. Find out what it means if your cat is prone to this behavior and whether you should encourage it.

Cats Like Heights

white cat perches on a man's back in a park

MamiGibbs / Getty Images

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.

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, they still feel a sense of security from the height.

But, why would a pet cat choose to hop on a person's shoulders instead of sticking to its cat tree? It could have something to do with the attention it gets from its human—a pet, a praise, or a treat serve as positive reinforcement.

Additionally, shoulder cats use this behavior to be at the same height as a human without the restraining feeling of being held by them. This way, they have the ability to leave at any point without struggling out of someone's arms.

Why Only Some Cats Sit on Shoulders

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

Drazen_ / Getty Images

Though cats have an attraction to heights that seems to span the entire species, only some like to sit on people's shoulders. 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, it won't do something it doesn't want to do.

Should Cat Owners Encourage Shoulder Sitting?

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

Siegfried Layda / Getty Images

A few small concerns accompany shoulder cats. For starters, if you train or encourage your cat to leap onto your shoulders from the floor, there is a chance the cat will also vault across the room from the top of a dresser or other surface. If you're startled by this, it may create a negative experience for the cat. To avoid the fright, keep an eye on your cat when it looks ready to leap.

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

As long as you take the appropriate measures, you and your shoulder cat can both enjoy spending time together in this quirky way.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can you train your cat to be a shoulder cat?

    While some cats naturally sit atop their humans' shoulders, others won't unless they're taught. You can train a cat to sit or ride on your shoulder by repeatedly coaxing it into position with a treat.

  • Why does your cat jump on you when you're standing?

    Cats are natural climbers. They might jump on you just because it's fun, or they might be craving some attention.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.