Why Do Cats Get Stuck in Trees?

So why do cats get stuck in trees?  If they can climb up, why can’t they climb down?

The simple answer is that they actually can climb down.  The problem is that many cats just don’t know how.  If they climb down backwards -- that is, butt-first -- they will be just fine.  It’s slow, awkward and scary for them, but they can do it.  The natural tendency, however, is for many cats to come down head-first.  Head-first is how they go everywhere, so it is quite natural to try to go down the tree that way.

Cartoon of a cat high in a tree and holding a cell phone to his ear saying "I've done it again."
copyright © Frank Cotham/The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank

Cat’s claws curve toward the back, and that works well for climbing up the tree.  They simply hook their claws in the cracks of the bark of the tree and pull themselves up.  But when they try to come down head-first, those claws are now curving upward and are almost useless for holding them securely to the tree.  When the cat tries it, he easily senses that he is about to fall, so he pulls back.  Every time he tries to go down head-first, the result is the same.  He either does not know to go down backward, or he is too afraid to do it.  He doesn’t know what else to do, so he simply stays where he is.  He may walk laterally out to the end of a branch or he may go higher, but he won’t come down because he knows he will fall.  In some sections of the tree where the branches are closely spaced, he may jump down from one branch to another, but when the distance is too great, he reaches an impasse.

Image of squirrel going down tree head-first showing hind feet turned backward
You may have seen a squirrel or raccoon going down a tree head-first and wondered why they are able to do that but not cats.  Squirrels and raccoons have a special advantage that cats don’t have.  Their hind feet have a joint that allows them to rotate their feet backwards so that they can point their claws downward regardless of the orientation of their body.  Cats cannot do that; their hind feet always point to their front, so if they want to climb down, they must do so backward.

If you want to see a video of a cat demonstrating how to climb down correctly, I highly recommend this one.  It is a tense, nail-biting experience to watch as this bold cat shows how it is done.




 “Have you ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree?”
There are many people – even people of authority who should know better – who will tell you that cats always come down on their own.  All you have to do is wait and not worry.  They are wrong.  Dead wrong.  The way they most often express this is with the question, “Have you ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree?”  I don’t know how this question became so popular, but if you ever ask a bunch of people for advice about a cat in a tree, someone is certain to assault you with it.  To be clear, this is more of a statement than a question, and it is a most infuriating one for several reasons.

The implication, of course, is that the cat has not come down yet because he wants to be there or is simply not yet motivated enough to come down.  Once he decides to come down, he will.  Contradicting this absurd assertion are the facts that for days, if not weeks, at a time, the cat is going without food, water (if it doesn’t rain), a place to pee or poop, and a comfortable, safe place to even sleep without fear of falling, often while enduring uncomfortable temperatures and/or rain or snow.  Why would a cat choose to do that?  Are they suggesting that this is the cat equivalent of some kind of spiritual retreat?  One recent winter, we had two cold fronts that brought lots of rain and low temperatures in the teens.  There was a cat here that was stuck in a tree for two weeks during that time.  There is no way anyone can claim that the cat enjoyed itself or was simply not motivated to come down.  It is not motivation that cats need; rather it is a sense of safety.

To be fair, it is definitely true that sometimes a cat will come down on its own.  We don’t usually know how they come down, but we do know it does happen.  They may finally summon the courage to jump, they may fall asleep and fall, they may throw caution to the wind and just come down head-first holding on as best they can, or something may happen that scares them into jumping.  We don’t know for sure, and the cats never talk about it.  But just because it happens sometimes does not mean it happens every time.  Even if it did, would it not be more humane and sensible to rescue them to at least shorten their period of suffering?

Another implication of the cat skeleton statement is that they have done an exhaustive investigation by climbing a large number of trees over a significant period of time looking for cat skeletons and found none.  I don’t know of anyone who has done that, so we should certainly ask them if they have and expect to see them squirm with discomfort when they admit they have not.  But let us assume someone has done that investigation and found no cat skeletons.  We should also ask how many bird skeletons they found too.  We certainly know that there are a large number of birds, that birds spend a significant amount of their time in trees, and that birds die, so we should expect to find a large number of bird skeletons in trees.  If any are found, then we would need to extrapolate from the number of bird skeletons, which we would expect to find in large numbers, the number of cat skeletons, which we would not normally expect to find.  So, for example, if we find a dozen bird skeletons among all the tens of thousands of birds that exist in trees, then how many cat skeletons would you expect to find knowing so few cats normally spend any significant time in trees as compared to birds?  I would estimate none.

We should also painfully consider what happens to a cat on his last day in the tree.  The cat is dehydrated, starved, exhausted and no longer has the strength to hold on, so the most likely outcome is that he will fall, probably while sleeping.  He might die in the tree and his body may become lodged in a crotch of the tree, but it may be later dislodged by the rain and movement of the branch in high winds, or his body may decompose there and the bones would fall one by one.  Some trees may have large branch unions where the body might be captured, and it would decompose with all the other leaves and twigs that also settle there.  But who is likely to find it under all those leaves?  So, even when the cat dies in his tree prison, it is unlikely that his skeleton will remain in the tree.

I can understand the attractiveness of this cat skeleton response.  It’s simple; it offers an easy answer to someone who has never given any thought to the issue or does not want to deal with a difficult problem that makes them feel helpless.  It gives the user a sense of knowledge or even superiority while they give glib reassurance to the cat owner.  But these psychological benefits to the user come at a high cost to both the cat and the cat owner as both suffer even longer than needed with this encouragement to delay the rescue.

So let’s put this cat skeleton response to rest in the graveyard of forgotten expressions, shall we.