Cat trees are a household necessity to keep your kitty engaged, active, and happy. If you’re inspired to build a cat tree, these expert tips will help ensure your kitty has everything she needs.

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grey and white cat laying on cat tree
Credit: New Africa / Adobe Stock

Pampered pets still have a little bit of the wild inside. "Even if your kitty gets dinner served to her from a can, she still enjoys climbing and perching in a place that feels safe and where she has a good view of all her surroundings," says Lauren Novack, a Certified Behavior Consultant with Behavior Vets of NYC

A cat tree can provide outlets for those activities when it includes scratching surfaces (like cardboard, sisal, seagrass, or paper rope); shelves, baskets, or slings for perching; and a kitty cave or place to hide out of sight. 

All of these must-haves are a part of your cat's enrichment and engagement that will keep her happy and healthy. Bonus points if you're handy enough to build your own cat tree that includes all of these elements! If you're already gathering DIY cat tree plans and ideas, we've got a few thoughts that'll ensure your kitty loves her cat tree (and leaves your furniture alone).  

Why Your Kitty Needs a Cat Tree

Turns out, that sweet purring fluffball who has stolen your heart is really a wild animal at her core. "It's only been about 10,000 years since cats were domesticated (compared to about 30,000 years for dogs), so it makes sense that some behaviors are still innate," says Novack, who is also a member of the Daily Paws advisory board. "Cat habitats should include places to climb, scratch, perch, and hide," she says. "Cats need to climb and perch, so it's our job to provide them with the ability to do that." 

For indoor kitties, that safe, high perch is often at the top of a cat tree or cat shelves—or on the top shelf of your bookcase or other not-designed-for-cat-climbing piece of furniture. "A cat tree acts as a pseudo tree for your cat. The goal is to create spaces in your home where your cat can do her species-specific behaviors," Novak says.

This is why an indoor cat tree is a hands-down necessity in a household with cats. Otherwise, you are likely to find your kitty climbing the walls—literally—and using your drapes and furniture as her ladders. 

Best Places to Set Up a Cat Tree

Where you put your cat tree might be the difference between a happy cat and a behavior problem. "Being up high allows cats to observe their surroundings from a safe place. When they're up high, they're able to search for prey while staying out of view of predators," Novak says. "A high perch gives your cat a place to get away from anything that bothers them. This is especially important if your cat lives with other animals, or if you have kids that don't know when to leave your cat alone." 

And while having a little space to herself, out of reach of tiny hands and fellow furbabies is one big reason to build a cat tree, you also want to place it in just the right spot so that your cat will be drawn to it. And where do cats gravitate to? The sunny spots.

"Ideally, try to put your cat tree near a window," Novak says. First, for those warm sun beams that she will soak up from her perch, but also "so your cat can watch 'kitty tv,'" Novak says, referring to your cat's pure enjoyment of watching all those feathered and furry prey out the window. 

Best Designs for a Cat Tree

Cat trees range in size and shape from petite for apartments and small spaces to room-filling playgrounds. They can be cat trees that look like real trees or cat shelves that provide a wall-mounted place to climb and perch. But how big is big enough? "As large as you can fit," Novak says. "Your kitty deserves the best."

If you have more than one cat, your cat tree should grow accordingly. "Size and design are important based on the number of cats you have," she says. Your cat tree design will need viewing perches, sleeping spots, and scratching areas for every cat in the house.

No matter your cat tree's size, if it's freestanding or wall-mounted, be sure it's securely anchored and safe for your kitty to climb. Freestanding cat trees should have a heavy base and possibly be bolted to the floor or wall for stability. Cat shelves should be installed using wall anchors and drilling into studs. "Be very careful about cat trees that are pressure mounted to the floor and ceiling," Novak says. "If you're going to go this route, invest in quality."  

Best Materials for a Cat Tree

You can use any number of materials to build your cat tree: real tree limbs, dimensional lumber from the hardware store, or even cardboard. The most important things to consider are stability and using materials that won't harm your cat. For example, if you plan to paint or stain dimensional lumber, be sure to choose nontoxic coatings because your cat will scratch those surfaces and potentially create flakes that might be ingested. While pressure-treated lumber might be important for building outdoors, its weather- and pest-resistent qualities aren't needed inside; so you can forego wood that's been treated with those additives. 

If you install cat shelves instead of going for a more traditional cat tree, "make sure that the surface of the shelf is not slippery," Novak says. A carpet remnant makes a secure and snug cover for spots like that. 

No matter the materials your DIY cat tree employs, but sure the list includes surfaces to scratch. "If there are multiple types of surfaces for scratching, even better," Novak says. Corrugated cardboard, fabric, and sisal are all appropriate for scratching.

Simple DIY Cat Tree Ideas

Of course, building a DIY cat tree does not have to include power tools, lumber, and assembly. You can have fun and get creative with easy DIY cat tree ideas! Remember that bookcase your kitty likes to perch on? Why not turn it into a piece of cat furniture? "You could outfit it for your cat by creating holes for her to move from shelf to shelf, installing sisal for scratching, and bedding for naps," Novak says. "Or give your kitty climbing spaces by installing shelves on the wall at different places and heights." Cat shelves don't have to be anything special—a repurposed IKEA shelf or a piece of plywood secured to inexpensive shelf brackets will do the trick. 

"But you can keep it even simpler than that and do it for free!" Novak says. Put all those Amazon boxes that are filling your recycling bin to use "and build a cat fort. The limits are only in your imagination."