What's a Shoulder Cat?
A shoulder cat is a cat that willingly will sit on their human´s shoulder. This behavior can come naturally to some cats, but it can also be trained.
Cats can make us, humans, feel special in many ways. Sometimes they´ll choose to be petted and show affection by sitting on our laps. Other times just by being present and staring at us, with their eyes wide open, from the other side of the room. Some cats, take making us feel special to the next level by perching on our shoulders.
There´s more than the emotional value in getting your cat to sit on your shoulder: Adventure cats like riding on their owners' shoulders to see everything and feel protected. It's also a great way to have them with you while you cook are do errands around the house.
Why do some cats perch on people's shoulders?
Cats mostly like sitting on human shoulders for the elevated vantage point. Cats' desire for height is innate. They can see further from a high vantage point, which helped our domestic cats' ancestors detect prey and predators. While our domesticated cats often have no hunting opportunities indoors and have no natural enemies to fear, they nonetheless find safety in a high perch.
If your cat does not have available shelving areas off the ground, it's a good idea to provide them some, as they feel protected and at ease when they are on elevated surfaces. Learn more about it in this article about catification.
Today, some cats just prefer to rest their heads on your shoulder because they get your undivided attention.
What's the Use of Carrying a Cat on the Shoulder?
Getting your cat comfortable sitting on your shoulder can come in very handy for a variety of reasons. My favorite:
- When you need your hands free but want to keep your cat close to you.
- On outdoor adventures: To move faster when hiking or to pass the security checkpoint in airports because you are traveling somewhere.
- I also appreciate shoulder training whenever we encounter a dog, which sadly, happens more often than we'd like.
- Finally, snuggling with your cat while they are on your shoulder gives them the freedom to walk away anytime without struggling to escape someone's grasp.
How do I Make my Cat a Shoulder Cat?
Shoulder cats aren't always born that way, but don´t worry, it can be taught and you are about to learn how.
If your cat does not sit on your shoulder naturally, we are going to train them to get there on command by using clicker training. If you don't know what clicker training is, I encourage you to read a bit about it as it will help you going forward.
You´ll need 2 things to teach your cat to sit on you:
A clicker is nothing more than a noise maker. If you don't want to buy a clicker for this, you can use any other sound, even "GOOD" or "YES" work. If you need more information about clickers, take a look at this article about what's clicker training.
Regarding the high-value treats, there's not much science to it. Each cat is unique but there's a clear preference for cats for raw treats (which are also healthier). In this article, I cover all about cat treats and how to find the best cat treats for your feline friend.
A lot of people have benefited from this approach to training. Click always means a treat is coming. The first step is to set the stage by thoroughly teaching your cat clicker training. We are going to divide the trick into 3 parts and in each part we are going to build toward the final trick that we want, which is to get the cat to jump on your shoulder.
Never praise him for spontaneously leaping. Only reward if they perform the trick after a command. The cat shouldn't jump on people for food.
Get the Cat Comfortable on Your Shoulder
The training starts by getting the cat comfortable on your shoulder. You are not going to try to get them to like hanging on the shoulder first.
2 things will help:
- Their ability to hold themselves
- Create a positive association with being perched
Reward your cat while on your shoulder: For a few weeks (before and during the training), place your cat on your shoulder. Once the cat is there, use the opportunity to feed them their meals or give them some treats.
Increase the "grip" and reduce the height: It helps if you don't clip your cat's nails and wear a thick sweater or sweatshirt so that they can hold themselves and feel more secure. Doing this part of the training on a soft surface like a bed or by sitting on the floor also makes it less scary for the cat at first. A secure grasp reduces the likelihood that it will try to jump off.
Once your cat is comfortable on your shoulder, everything else is downhill.
Putting 2 Front Paws on Your Shoulder
We are going to use feeding time to get your cat to put their 2 front paws on your shoulder.
Take your cat's meal and get on the sofa. Place your cat on the top of the sofa's back and hold their food bowl near your shoulder. Do it in a way that only by placing their two front paws on your shoulder they can reach the food.
Let them eat their meal like this. If you've taught finger targetting, instead of placing your cat on the sofa's back, make them get up there using your finger.
Continue doing this until they begin responding regularly which means that they understand that they can get access to food when their paws are on your shoulder.
Getting Your Cat to Perch on Your Shoulder
Because your cat now is comfortable with two paws on your shoulder, we are going to use the fact that they are distracted with the food to get them to perch on your shoulder, almost without noticing.
Do as you've been doing and start feeding your cat while they have two paws on your shoulder. Start leaning forward and up from the sofa, on your way to standing up.
Your cat will likely want to hold onto eating their meal and grab your shoulder with the front paws (this is why a nice sweater and sharp nails help) and come with you for a ride.
If your cat has done this, CONGRATULATIONS, you are 75% there.
Get Your Cat to Walk Up to Your Shoulder
Because you've already been successful at achieving the behavior, now it's all about getting them to do it on command. We are going to separate this process as well by building a stair towards our shoulder and rewarding it along the way.
We are going to use a chair, now. The intention is that the cat does the following:
- Jump on the chair
- Jump to your knee from the chair
- Jump from your knee to your shoulder
Get your best cat treats. Put on thick pants and get ready for the final steps to get your cat to jump on your shoulder.
Step on the chair so that your leg is at 90 degrees. Use a treat or finger targetting to lure your cat to the chair first and then to your knee.
Offering your cat food through your shoulder can entice him to walk up to you for a snack. Sit on a Sofa and raise the food at the level of your shoulder. Your cat will approach and lean on your shoulder as they begin to eat.
Get Your Cat to Jump on Your Shoulder from the Floor
- Use a wand or target stick to train your cat to jump on your shoulder. Place the target stick somewhere on the ground. When your cat hits it, click and give it a treat.
- Raise the level. Instruct them to leap onto a chair. When your cat leaps up and touches the target stick you've placed on the chair, click and reward.
- Elevate it some more. Get them to leap from the floor to a dresser or anything else that can reach over their head but not the chair. Click and reward once more when they reach for the stick after you've encouraged them to jump up.
- Have them hop up onto your shoulder from the dresser. If they can jump to an equal height with you, they'll feel safer making the jump. Get near them while carrying the target stick on your shoulder. If they don't want to leap, they can simply tread on.
- Once they do it regularly, step further away and encourage them to hop onto you from the dresser.
- Once you've achieved that, do it sitting in a chair and finally on the floor.
How to carry a cat on your shoulder when hiking?
Initially, your kitty must be comfortable when perched on your shoulder or in your backpack. Practicing this indoors will ensure that they get a safe landing if they were to jump off the shoulder.
Some cats have an endearing habit of perching on their owners' shoulders or laying over their neck and upper back. This is the case with Mia. Some felines will prefer to perch on the backpack, with their paws resting on their owner's shoulders. Both options are correct, as long as the cat is comfortable.
Regardless of how your cat chooses to perch on your shoulder, consider using a harness and a leash. This way you can prevent your cat from jumping in unwanted situations, like when a dog is approaching or a car is passing by.
A collar and ID tag are also recommended in case they escape.
I lost my cat Mia in Mexico and I could find her back thanks to the AirTag collar she was wearing. Such a scary event...!
My Favorite Pictures of my Cat on my Shoulder
Pictures of my cat riding on my shoulder are my all-time favorites, and you can see some of them on our Instagram!
Stay wild, stay safe, and we´ll see you outdoors!
Albert & Mia