3 secrets to get your cat to use their cat tree

Some part of me worried that buying my cat a cat tree, a structure designed for cats to scratch, nap and amuse themselves on, would be a mistake. Cats, after all, have an innate sense that lets them know when an object has been purchased for them, so they can go out of their way to ignore it. And cat trees are not cheap.


Shortly after getting home with the tree—a relatively small one, as my husband and I live in a relatively small apartment with our feline friend—it seemed my fears were well founded. Oh, the cat sniffed at it, and played with the tree’s dangling feather feature for a minute and a half. But after that, nothing.

She barely even glanced at the thing for months, leading to quite a bit of resentment on my end as I stubbed my toe on the structure every so often. “Why keep this thing if the cat has zero interest?!” I’d think bitterly as I grabbed my feet and muttered swear words to myself. But the sunk-cost fallacy of the whole experiment, and the chance that she might like it eventually kept me from dumping it into our outdoor trash can. I was trying to be a “good” indoor cat owner, after all, and pet and cat blogs said cats needed places to climb and play.

It turns out, I should’ve read those blogs more carefully. In some desperate, I-can’t-take-this-anymore bruised-toe induced Googling, I started to piece together what my cat wasn’t enjoying about her cat tree, and was shocked and flabbergasted to learn some of it was my fault (and my husband’s too, for the record; we co-raise this creature). With just a few changes, the cat now basically lives in her tree, and I want to pass on what I learned so other people don’t have to suffer as needlessly as I did.

1. Put the cat tree where you, the humans, are most

This was a hard lesson to learn because 1) I think cat trees are, as a rule, kind of ugly, and I didn’t really want to have the thing where I’d have to stare at it all the time, and 2) it meant all that toe stubbing I’d done was really for no reason. Basically, the cat tree shouldn’t have been where I put it in the first place. But it turned out to be the major change the cat needed, because keeping the tree far away from my husband and I is exactly what made it unappealing to her.

My cat is very social. She would follow any human anywhere so long as they would pet her at some point. She likes to be in the middle of gatherings to maximize attention getting, so she prefers rooms that have people in them—including the bathroom if you’re in there, and you’re the only human at home. Keeping the cat tree away from my husband and I meant the cat was just never near it. We are her primary playthings, and she only turns to toys and scratchers when she needs stimulation and we can’t, or won’t, immediately give it to her. By keeping the cat tree in the living room, where we sit for hours, she has a place to climb and play while still keeping an eye on us and making sure we’re available for head scratches and shoulder climbing at the earliest opportunity. It’s a viable entertainment and napping spot, where she doesn’t lose out on having company. Everyone wins.

Even if my cat were shy, though, this method would work, because in addition to stimulation, cats really need things to smell a certain way. Namely, they want things to smell like them, or just smell familiar. Cats will therefore rub themselves on everything to claim ownership of them (including you), and get used to smells that they live with, like yours.

Eventually, your smell is actually very appealing to the cat, and they’ll seek it out to feel safe. That’s why you might find your cat napping a lot on your couch, or in your bed—places where you spend hours, and therefore your scent is all over it.

Placing a cat tree near your couch or bed, or near where you cook or work a lot, lets your scent get on the cat tree, and makes it seem less foreign to your cat. Your cat will therefore be unafraid to explore it, and with some positive associations added to the mix, your cat tree will become your cat’s favorite spot.

2. Play with your cat in the tree

Petting your cat when they climb onto their cat tree on their own, and playing with them once they’re on there, is what creates the positive associations with the tree I mentioned above. Cats love to play—they’re hunters, after all, and want to stalk and kill (or at least attack) as much as they can. If they see the cat tree as a place they can get that stimulation and have fun, it’s going to be a place they enjoy.

Similarly, if the cat tree is a place where they get affection and love, they’ll want to be in it all the time. So make sure you engage with your cat a lot around the cat tree, bringing them there at the start, and then using the engagement as a reward for solo exploration. Eventually, even if you play with your cat less when they’re up there, they’ll still see it as a great place to go.

This particular trick is why so many pet and cat blogs recommend cat trees as something that’ll stop your indoor cat from scratching furniture, or otherwise being destructive. Indoor cats get little to no hunting time, so they can get a little stir crazy, attacking your couch because it’s there to attack. That hunting instinct can’t be overcome, or trained out; it’s part of being a cat.

To save your furniture, then, you have to give your cat things that are ok to scratch, like the cat tree. When you catch your cat scratching furniture, bring them to the cat tree, and play with them there. Your cat will learn the tree is the place to play and hunt, particularly if the tree is near furniture so the behavior can be corrected quickly (#1 proving its usefulness once again), preserving your home, and your relationship with your pointy-toed friend.

3. Treats and catnip are your friends

That’s right, the final part to getting your cat to like their cat tree is just good, clean, simple bribery. Put your cat’s favorite treats all over the cat tree. Sprinkle catnip in the napping areas, so your cat has room to rub it all over themselves, and then splay out as they get all loopy. It’s an incredibly easy thing to do, and it’s effective. My husband tried it a lot when we first got the cat tree, and it was basically the only reason our cat would pay attention to it at all, until the cat tree moved next to the couch.

So yeah, give your cat a reason to get up into the tree, so you can then reward them with play and petting, and start the positive associations quickly. So long as the cat tree is in a room with good smells and good people (where you can still sort of hide it, by the way, if it’s short and that part still bothers you), your cat will fully love the thing, and you won’t be lamenting over stubbed toes anymore. Instead, your stubbed toes will be a proud reminder of what a great cat owner you are, making it all totally worth it. 

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