The stairs are probably just a gateway from floor to floor to you, but for cats, they can be an incredibly fun jungle gym. Whether jumping between bars, viewing the room from great heights, running up and down at top speed during “zoomies,” or taking a badly-placed nap on a stair tread, staircases are often a favorite for cats.
But what if your cat suddenly starts to act afraid of using the stairs or is avoiding the stairs in a new place?
It’s important to keep in mind that any sudden change in behavior, even if it’s something as simple as refusing to use the stairs, should never be ignored. Stair avoidance may signal underlying medical issues such as:
- A painful condition making movement difficult, like osteoarthritis.
- An injury from something like a fall
- A visual or balance impairment, causing your cat to be uncertain of where they’re going
If you notice your cat starting to avoid your staircases, don’t assume the reason is anxiety or fear. First, get your cat checked out to be sure nothing is physically causing the avoidance.
Once physically cleared, there are a number of factors that might stop a cat from loving a good-’ole staircase, which we examine more below.
HOW TO SPOT IT: How can I tell if my cat has a fear of the stairway?
If your veterinarian rules out physical pain as a factor in your cat’s avoidance, it’s time to look for other potential causes. These may include:
A previous trauma. “As a kitten, my cat wiggled through the banisters over the balcony, slipped and fell to the hardwood floor below,” says well-known author, behavior consultant, and industry spokesperson, Amy Shojai, CABC. “Luckily, she wasn’t injured and never acted fearful of the stairs, but that type of accident can change the cat’s attitude for life.”
If your cat’s been chased around the stairs, fallen in the past, or otherwise had an experience that caused recurrent or intense fear near or involving a staircase, she may associate that area of your home with the bad feelings and choose to avoid it altogether. This can happen even after the thing that caused the trauma has been removed.
A territorial claim by another cat. If you live in a multi-cat household, territorial issues could trigger one cat’s stair avoidance. “The tops of stairs make a great lookout and often are preferred feline real estate for the top ‘boss’ cat. This top cat may guard his/her territory to keep others from using the stairs,” says Shojai. “A confident cat can guard and keep other cats away simply by staring at the owned territory from across the room (or from the top of the stairs).”
Territorial claims may not include obvious signs of aggression, like hissing, swatting, growling or chasing. So, pet parents should be on the lookout for subtle signs.
Unpleasant or loud sounds and smells. “The cat’s sense of smell is very sensitive,” says Shojai, “so you may not be bothered by the smell of bleach, or carpet spray, but that could be off-putting to kitty.” Basements smell especially different than the rest of your house, and the loud clothes dryer in the corner probably won’t be a welcome sign for kitty.
Shojai also explains that cats may hear startling noises that cause them to avoid stairs, such as critters scurrying in the dark or gurgling water in pipes.
Unsure footing or too much spacing between stairs. Cats with balance issues (like Cerebellar Hypoplasia or inner-ear problems) may feel insecure about a staircase that is slick or lacks risers behind each step. Things can be done to help these cats feel more secure, but understanding the physical causes for their hesitation is a first step.
THINGS TO CONSIDER: Is it possible to change my cat’s mind?
All cats react differently to training and behavior modification. And if your cat has a fear of the stairs, it may take some time to get your cat comfortable with using them again.
“It’s possible to change the cat’s perception,” says Shojai, “but it takes time.”
FIRST STEPS TO TAKE: How can I help my cat be more confident going up and down the stairs?
Check their footing. Whether it’s a stair issue or a foot issue, be sure to address what might be deterring your cat’s stair mobility. Overgrown nails or overly hairy paw pads could be irritating to your cat or make stairs especially slick. Trim your cat’s nails and paw hair regularly. If your stairs are slippery, or your cat seems nervous about the flooring, consider getting carpeted stair runners to make them more comfortable. If your cat seems uncertain about a lack of risers, consider adding a temporary cardboard backing, which you can remove as your cat gets more comfortable.
Consider their age and medical status. You’ve been to the vet, you’ve taken all things into consideration, and it may be time to eliminate stairs from your cat’s life for their sake. That’s okay! Your cat can still live a perfectly comfortable life on one floor. As their pet parent, it’s your job to make everything they need accessible to them, including food, water and litter boxes they can easily climb into.
Combat the sources of their anxiety. “First, try to figure out WHY the cat avoids the stairs,” says Shojai. “Is kitty truly fearful, or does she use this as an excuse to be held and carried? If another pet guards the area, don’t try to force the shy cat to trespass. Instead, confine the guard cat temporarily in another room to give the fearful cat private stairway time to learn how to use them.”
Give them all the fun things, on the stairs. “For cats that react to catnip or silver vine, throw a sniff-party at the foot of the stairs,” suggests Shojai. “Often, the herb helps cats overcome inhibitions and act a bit more brave. Feather or fishing pole lure toys can entice cats to follow up the stairs, and discover that it’s not such a tough obstacle after all. Also, try placing a very high-value treat on small plates set on several of the stairs, so the cat must climb in order to munch.”
Take the edge off with pheromones or supplements. You may want to consider asking your veterinarian about supplements to help ease your cat’s anxiety or try using a pheromone diffuser near the base of the stairs. While these don’t work for all cats, some cat parents report positive results.
HOW TO GET HELP: Questions to ask veterinary and behavior professionals
- My cat has recently stopped using the stairs. I’ve also noticed [other new behaviors that are occurring]. Are there medical conditions that might be causing this change?
- We just moved into a two-level house after living in a single-floor apartment, and my cat won’t use the stairs. We’d love to have [Cat’s Name] sleep with us. How can we help my cat get over this fear?
Is Your Cat Slowing Down from Cornell Feline Health Center
Loving Care for Older Cats from Cornell Feline Health Center