April 21, 2021

Creative Architecture The Swiss Have Made To Help Cats Get Around

Switzerland may be the best place in the world to be a housecat.

In Switzerland, outdoor access for cats is considered vital for their welfare, and owners install ramps and ladders on the sides of buildings to help them come and go. This belief contrasts with the growing view that cats must be kept indoors to protect birds and other wildlife.

Cats in Switzerland have freedom, autonomy—and their own cat-specific architecture. Be it on the side of a townhouse or apartment complex, custom-built ladders and ramps are designed so cats can come and go as they please.

German photographer and architecture aficionado Brigitte Schuster has documented many of these ladders in Bern, Switzerland, in her new book, Swiss Cat Ladders.

“When I moved to the city of Bern I was amazed,” she says. “It’s a way of showing the caretaking, I would say. We give the cat the freedom, and we also get the freedom as cat [owners] that we don’t need to be at home when our cats come home.”

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Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Cat ladders are found all over Europe, but they’re particularly abundant in Switzerland, which is home to about 1.5 million domestic cats. Schuster says cats are the country’s most common pet because some two-thirds of Swiss people live in rented homes, and Swiss landlords are more open to allowing cats than dogs.

Schuster’s neighbor, Sabina Maeder, who owns a 17-year-old, brown-striped tabby cat named Busski (short for Busker), says the ladders are as much a reflection of Swiss values as they are of cat behavior.

“We Swiss love freedom and autonomy, for ourselves and all beings who live with us in our country,” she says.

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Homemade cat ladders are as architecturally eclectic as they are charming. Many are simple and economical: a teetering plank between balconies; spindly pegs ascending a vertical drain pipe; a slatted wooden bridge laid diagonally from the branch of a climbable tree to a higher windowsill. Some are precarious, scaffolding-like structures of wood and metal that zigzag up multiple stories. Still, others span intimidatingly wide gaps between roofs and apartment buildings, dozens of feet off the ground. At least one lucky cat has its own spiral staircase with a small perching platform on top.

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Despite their whimsical photogeneity, cat ladders haven’t yet been thoroughly documented. The graphic designer and writer Brigitte Schuster aims to change that. She had spotted the occasional cat ladder in her native Germany, but it wasn’t until she moved to Bern, Switzerland, six years ago that she realized how popular they were. She’s since taken hundreds of photographs of cat ladders around the Swiss capital, compiling them in a book analyzing the structures from sociological, architectural, and aesthetic perspectives. Swiss Cat Ladders will be published by Schuster’s book imprint, Brigitte Schuster Éditeur, in German and English in fall 2019.

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Cats are the most common household pet in Switzerland, and also in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands—all countries, Schuster says, where cat ladders are staples of urban and suburban environments. But a country that loves cats isn’t necessarily one that embraces cat ladders.

There aren’t cat ladders in the United States, where many states have so-called leash laws that forbid the animals from being off-leash outdoors, and where city dwellers have built screened-in “catios.” Russia, which ranks highest in Europe in both cat ownership and household cat population, doesn’t have cat ladders. In Istanbul, hundreds of thousands of stray cats—some feral, some cuddly, all ownerless—roam and scale the city without the help of ladders designed specifically for them. A recent documentary, Kedi, tells the story of seven such cats, for whom every climbable structure is a “cat ladder.”

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

“I was questioning if cats really need these cat ladders, or if humans impose the cat ladders on their cats because they find them practical,” Schuster says. Her question appears backed up by traditional feline lore: If cats always land on their feet (and have nine lives), why do they need cat ladders? Couldn’t someone just open the window for their dearest feline and let her find her way to the ground, even if doing so requires an acrobatic leap?

“Cats do need them!” says Dennis C. Turner, a veteran cat behaviorist who’s considered, by his estimate, one of the world’s “four or five foremost cat experts.” “They’re very important. But they’re rarely mentioned in books about how to properly house cats.”

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Turner points to two reasons why cats need cat ladders: their physical safety and their mental well-being. Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t always land on their feet—the innate “cat-righting reflex” only works up to 30 meters, Turner says—and even when they do, their daredevil leaps can result in injuries as severe as torn ligaments, ruptured tendons, and broken legs.

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

There’s a saying Turner often repeats during interviews and public lectures: “Once an outdoor cat, always an outdoor cat.” That is, if a kitten was born outside and spent its first weeks outdoors, it should be kept as a cat with outdoor access for the rest of its life. Outdoor cats held “captive” indoors, Turner says, will invariably develop behavioral problems, including urine marking and scratching furniture and drapes. For people in urban areas who live in apartments, or even in two-story houses, cat ladders (plus cat doors) are the easiest way to let cats come and go.

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

For those who might find the notion of an outdoor cat objectionable, Turner isn’t against keeping cats exclusively indoors—“I wouldn’t do it myself,” he says, “but that’s personal”—as long as two rules are fulfilled: They’ve never been outside and their home indoors is physically and mentally stimulating, with scratching posts, elevated perches, sunny views, and so on.

Not all cats immediately take to their ladders like catnip. There’s a learning curve. Schuster says that some cat owners will put food on different steps to lure their pets out, in a form of positive reinforcement. “Cats only learn when they want to learn,” Turner says. “Punishment never works with them, but positive reinforcement does.”

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

In the preface of Schuster’s book, Turner writes, “I personally think that all ladders indicate a willingness to house the cats properly and respect the animals’ needs.” A home with a cat ladder is a home that knows and respects the needs of the cats who live there.

If it fits, I sits” is an oft-memed saying associated with images of cats sitting snugly inside boxes, baskets, bowls, and other containers. Cats’ relationship with cat ladders might be described thusly: “If it’s mine, I climb.”

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster

Image credits: Brigitte Schuster