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Why, Cat?!

Why Do Cats Knock Stuff Over?

Your brand new iPhone, antique figurine, full glass of water — they will swat it off the table. A cat behaviorist explains why.

by Charles Manning
April 26, 2022
A cat sitting on a shelf with glassware.
Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy

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Cats sure do love to knock things over: tchotchkes, small vases, glasses of water. They absolutely live for pushing pens and pencils off desks. Keys, eyeglasses, your morning pills — anything on any surface, if they can, they’ll gleefully sweep it away.

Is that your phone resting precariously close to the lip of the table? Don’t worry, your cat will be along shortly to help it over the edge, popping it out of its new case and shattering the screen in the process.

And they won’t wait until you’re out of the room to do this. Oh, no! They want you to see them. Or, rather, they want to see you see them. They want eye contact. To watch the blood drain from your face as you bear witness to that little glass figurine you bought at Disney Land sliding through the air and breaking into a thousand tiny pieces on the floor.

At least, that’s what it feels like. Like they are actually trying to torment you. To make you squirm. To get a rise out of you. But are they? Are they really? We spoke to feline behavior specialist Jennifer Van de Kieft of The Cat Advocate to find out for sure.

Why? Why do they do it? Why do they insist on knocking things over?

The main reason for this behavior is boredom. They are looking for things to do, and because they are climbers, they gravitate towards high places in the home. They enjoy resting and viewing their territory from high places and if they find knick knacks while they are up there, they will often push them over and send them crashing to the ground.

And they just keep doing it over and over again!

The behavior becomes reinforcing. Maybe they like the way it feels when their paws touch the object. Maybe they like the way it sounds when the object comes crashing to the floor. Maybe they like the reaction they get from you; sometimes negative attention is better than no attention at all. 

So they are doing it to get a rise out of you?

Not exactly, but it is the attention that is reinforcing the behavior. I think there’s a difference in the attention seeking your cat is looking for versus trying to get you upset. That would involve more complex thinking that, as a species, they are not likely capable of. For cats who are frequently doing this when their humans react strongly, I lean towards thinking it’s become an attention-seeking behavior, though it may have started with curiosity. 

@reznor_the_cat Yes. The cup was indeed knocked over before I caught him 😂 #jerk #catsoftiktok #RBCPodiumPose #gravity ♬ You're a Jerk - New Boyz

I feel like I’m giving you the wrong impression of me as a cat dad. I’ve literally never even raised my voice to my precious Pumpkin. He pees on the bed and I’m the one who apologizes to him. Honestly, sometimes I just think he’s a minimalist expressing his preference for clean surfaces.

I don't think that is what's going on in most cases. I think they think it’s a fun game. You’ll put the objects back up and they get to do it all over again.

Are certain objects more likely to attract a cat’s attention than others?

I think cats like small objects that maybe resemble prey they would hunt. Though cats will knock over lots of items, including full drinking glasses. Cats have individual preferences so what my cat may like to knock over might be different from what your cat likes to knock over.

@nathanthecatlady Check out @thewildestsite to find out why your cats do the things they do. #thewildestpartner ♬ original sound - Nathanthecatlady

So, how do you stop them? I mean, my phone can’t take another tumble!

Part of this is management. If you have breakable objects, it’s best to secure them elsewhere. The best approach is to make sure your cat has plenty of their own vertical spaces — whether it’s cat trees, shelves [or window perches], or designating furniture for them. Try clearing off spaces and adding a cat bed or towel for them to hang out on. Once your cat has their own vertical space, provide toys to knock over on the vertical space. I do this with my cats all the time. I put their toys in high spots which they really enjoy finding and knocking to the ground.

If your cat is looking for your attention, it’s best to ignore the knocking over of objects, otherwise you’re reinforcing the behavior. You might even put the objects away for a time, but ensure you’re providing your cat with enrichment opportunities to prevent boredom such as interactive playtime, odor enrichment, food puzzles, and other games or challenges to keep your cat busy and engaged in appropriate outlets for their intelligence and energy.

@tipsygates knocking cups over since 3 months old😹 #cat #catsoftiktok #starbucks ♬ original sound - Superginger

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Charles Manning

Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.