Why do stairs confuse my cat?
April 24, 2012 8:06 AM   Subscribe

My cat went down the apartment stairs but thought she was still on our floor. Why did she think that?

We recently moved into a new apartment building. My cat has become comfortable in the apartment but is still figuring out the building.

Yesterday, she trotted out the door and went down the stairs to the apartment immediately below ours. She then sat at that door, meowing desperately to be let in -- a sound that's different from her regular "speech." I had to pick her up and take her back up the stairs.

Clearly, she thought the lower apartment was ours. I know cats have the equivalent of a two-year-old human's brain, but it strikes me as odd that she would think "If I walk directly away from point A, I will arrive back at Point A." Nothing else in her experience would match that logic.

Even more strange is the fact that cats rely so much on scent. She has been marking our front door since we moved. The place downstairs can't smell at all like her or us. It just looked like our front door, which shouldn't be enough to confuse a cat.

So it must have been the stairs that disoriented her. Has anyone else had this experience with cats on stairs? Ours is young and healthy and has good vision. We hope to take her on walks outside, which means going down three flights of stairs -- will she eventually figure them out or is she doomed to a life of MC Escher-like stair confusion?
posted by Flying Saucer to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
You are making an assumption that may not hold. Maybe she knew it was a different apartment, but she wanted in for some reason. Another cat, some tasty salmon odors?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:11 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's entirely possible that she smells another cat and has followed its trail and wants to be friends/chop it into bits with her mouth and claws/meet it and run away. Ask your downstairs neighbor if they have a cat that gets out into the hall.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:11 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


This sounds like a mistake I could make, if I walked out of my apartment down the stairs, then forgot what I was doing, looked around on the lower landing and decided to go back in the apartment.

You're assuming that the cat remembered going down the stairs when heading for the door, or that the cat had some intention of going to your apartment by going down the stairs. But the cat, living in the moment, just wants to wander around and maybe go into a familiar looking door.
posted by emilyw at 8:13 AM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


it strikes me as odd that she would think "If I walk directly away from point A, I will arrive back at Point A." Nothing else in her experience would match that logic.

People do this all the time. I forget which level I parked on at least once a week, seeing how it changes almost every day. "So... wait... which floor am I on again?" And I've got the benefit of being able to read the signage, something your cat doesn't.

She probably just got confused about where she was. No big deal.
posted by valkyryn at 8:18 AM on April 24, 2012


I don't know how much different cats are than dogs in this arena, but we've got a half-beagle (i.e. nose on legs) who totally does not grasp the concepts of flights in an apartment building. We live in apartment 4F and whenever I take the stairs up after a walk, she beelines for both 2F and 3F as soon as she sees them. She also hates when I take her out while my girlfriend stays home, and on our way down she'll try to run "back" to 3F and then 2F, as well.
posted by griphus at 8:20 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


(The dog has been doing this for a year, by the way.)
posted by griphus at 8:20 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


My cat went down the apartment stairs but thought she was still on our floor. Why did she think that?

Because her brain is the size of a walnut. Cats are not just weird, they're sometimes kind of dim.

Nthing the "hell, people do this, and our brains are way bigger, so not so surprising a cat did it" theory, and the "maybe she also smelled another cat or some tuna" theory.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:22 AM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Has anyone else had this experience with cats on stairs?

Yes. We were in an apartment building where each floor above ground level was functionally identical, and there were a couple of times when we had cats at our door (second floor in US terminology, first floor in UK terminology) who were adamant they lived there, but had come from the corresponding apartment one or two floors above. It never seemed like a curiosity / other cat thing, and very much felt like not grasping the concept of stairs.
posted by holgate at 8:23 AM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Or more specifically, not grasping the concept of flights/levels beyond the first one. Which makes sense, I suppose. The cat may know that it doesn't live on the ground floor, but once it's up the first flight of stairs, everything looks about right, so miaow-miaow-miaow why aren't you letting me in?
posted by holgate at 8:28 AM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I mean... why do people sometimes open the fridge, stare into it and then walk away before coming back 10 minutes later when they remember they were thirsty? Brains - human and otherwise - are weird things that have not had a service pack update in thousands of years.
posted by elizardbits at 8:37 AM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Clearly, she thought the lower apartment was ours. I know cats have the equivalent of a two-year-old human's brain, but it strikes me as odd that she would think "If I walk directly away from point A, I will arrive back at Point A." Nothing else in her experience would match that logic.

Cat logic probably doesn't work the same way that human logic does. While learning is certainly possible for animals, most animals don't show evidence of being able to recall past events in a specific timeline. Bees for example can communicate the location of a food source they found, but it seems to be entirely based on how long it takes them to fly rather than the bee actually remembering the location. So while your cat will probably get more used to the layout of your building and where things are, when she found the similar door on the lower floor it probably triggered enough of her memory of your door that she got confused. Even if the cat has some logical ability to figure out what's going on, being confronted with something that looks familiar in an unfamiliar place is probably enough to confuse them.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:38 AM on April 24, 2012


In my experience, cats often want doors opened just on principle. See also "My bowl is empty, please rectify this even though I'm not hungry.".
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 8:46 AM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think cats would understand ownership of doors. Maybe your cat just presumed you could open this other door because it looked similar.
posted by RobotHero at 8:52 AM on April 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


As a data point, our cat lived in our last apartment for seven years. When we were moving out, we locked her in a bedroom so she couldn't escape while the front door was open all day. At the end of the day she came out of the bedroom into a completely empty apartment and had no idea where she was. It must have looked so different from her point of view, seven inches off the ground, that she didn't even recognize the place. Kind of different scenario but it may be easier than you think for kitty to get disoriented, especially in a new place!
posted by TrixieRamble at 9:00 AM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


My cat does this every single time she goes downstairs on a kitty-walk in our apartment complex. We live on the 3rd floor of a 3 story building, and she always insists that she's back home when we're at the apartment directly beneath ours on the second floor.

I attribute this behavior to the smallness of the cat brain.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:06 AM on April 24, 2012


Back when I was living in an apartment building, on several occasions I've had actual, number-reading humans walk into my apartment, look around confusedly, and then apologize for walking in. It's not necessarily crazy, it's imperfection in the brain's ability to keep all of the everythings straight at all times.

And I kept telling myself to remember to lock the door more often, but I didn't do that either, did I?
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:09 AM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I might need more adorable cat pictures to accurately judge this situation though.

leetle peenk toes!
posted by elizardbits at 9:28 AM on April 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


The standard answer to an AskMe cat question is "Cats are weird."
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 10:20 AM on April 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's probably significant air exchange between your apartment and the one below you.

The two doorways might have smelled pretty similar to a cat.
posted by jamjam at 1:28 PM on April 24, 2012


Cats have no logic.

Mine usually purrs and scratches the door from outside and I open it. One day when I locked us both out she looked at me and started scratching the door, extremely confident that scratching and purring is how you open doors.

That day I understood that she is a lot less smart than I thought she was. She even looked mad at me because I wasn't helping her scratch (and purr). She looked like she was saying "Aren't you going to help?"


I ended up driving 10 miles to pick up a copy of my key, so I guess her scratching and purring did eventually work. Cats have no logic, but they are geniuses.
posted by Tarumba at 1:31 PM on April 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


Why look at case studies when there are controlled experiments! The short answer is that if we were to tie up your language centers by giving them something else to do (like repeat a tape recorded reading in as close to real time as you could manage), you might be just as bad as your cat.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:32 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


My apartment neighbors have a really beautiful, very sweet ragdoll cat that they let roam occasionally* and he sometimes comes to our door and paws at it because it's in the same layout as their door but one section over. Animals understand location and layout, but they seem to get confused when all the buildings/doors/floors look the same. I usually lead NeighborCat back out to the sidewalk and toward his door to help him figure out where he's trying to go, which mostly works. And if not, I get to pet him until he understands that we aren't his people and this isn't his door.

(*I would never let any cat out in this neighborhood, let alone this cat. We live right next to a semi-truck accessible delivery route, and then on top of that we have a large homeless population. I'm really surprised he hasn't been hit or stolen, though that would break my heart.)
posted by i feel possessed at 10:52 AM on April 25, 2012


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