Where cats get their own staircases

A photographer documents the creative architecture the Swiss have made to help their their feline friends get around.

Photograph by Brigitte Schuster
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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.

Photograph by Brigitte Schuster

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

They 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.”

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. (See charming photos of street cats from around the world.)

Through the window

Some ladders are made of metal, some of wood; they can be cobbled together from different materials or purchased online or in pet stores as pre-fab kits. Some carpenters even specialize in the design and building of cat ladders.

Maeder built her own cat ladder 15 years ago when she moved from a first-floor apartment to a higher floor in her building.

“When I moved from the first floor, there was no opportunity for my cat to go outside,” she says. “It is only two meters [6.5 feet] from my back balcony to a chestnut tree, so I made a very elegant ladder.”

The construction is a simple wood ramp that extends from the window of her second-floor balcony to a nearby tree. Busski crosses the ladder from the window into the tree, jumps from the tree to a fence in the garden, and from the fence to the ground, Maeder says.

How far do your cats roam?

A study in 2014 placed GPS tracking devices on house cats and turned up some interesting findings. While most cats stay in the vicinity of their homes, others travel much farther away, to the surprise of their owners. Read more about the research.

Busski can also go through a flap in her front door to visit the hallway and her neighbor’s homes (his feline girlfriend lives upstairs). And Schuster says it’s not uncommon for neighbors to connect their cat ladders together, which sometimes means a neighbor’s cat will come in your window.

Threat to wildlife?

Domestic cats, however, are some of the world’s most effective predators, and freedom to roam can turn them into invasive species in their own backyards. Studies conducted in the United States and Australia have found cats to be prolific bird killers. Conservationists have also raised alarm over outdoor cats’ hunting of reptiles and small mammals. One study estimated cats kill between 100 and 350 million birds every year in Canada. (Read more about the cat-versus-bird debate.)

Though it’s mentioned very briefly in her book, Schuster says she hasn’t thought about this as an issue. And, in fact, Livio Rey, a biologist at the Swiss Ornithological Institute, says there isn’t much of a conversation about cat predation in Switzerland around birds, though he notes there is a small but growing movement to keep cats inside to protect endangered amphibians and reptiles.

“As far as I know, there is no discussion about cat ladders in Switzerland,” says Livio. “We have a fact sheet that we regularly give to people to inform how to prevent cats from predating on small animals. There is a discussion to make it compulsory to castrate cats; however, this is not yet very far on the political agenda.”

Despite the lack of discussion, at least one study, published in 2010, suggests there’s cause for concern about cat predation on birds in Switzerland. Researchers from the University of Zurich and SWILD, a nonprofit association of wildlife biologists, found that cats in the rural Swiss village of Finstersee killed two birds each per month.

“The absolute number of prey items taken per area is striking and indicates that cat predation represents an important factor in ecosystems,” the scientists write. “Its role may be momentous in intensively fragmented urban habitats, where cat densities are especially high.”

Nonetheless, many Swiss believe outdoor access for cats is important for their welfare. “Keeping cats without allowing them to run freely is a great challenge for cat holders,” reads the website of the Zurich Animal Protection Association, which recommends cat owners use cat flaps and cat ladders to allow indoor-outdoor access and prevent boredom.

“It’s not natural to jail a cat in a house,” Maeder says. “I’m sure that a cat has to go out like you and me.”

Indoor-only cats, the association says, require social contact, hunting-like exercise, and access to new and varied experiences to keep their minds stimulated.