Do Cats Really Get Stuck in Trees?

The short answer is: some do, some don't.

Mother Nature played a cruel joke on cats by giving them the instinct to climb up a tree without giving them the instinct to climb down. Cats can climb down, but to do so, they must come down backward, and that is simply not instinctive to them. In fact, their instinct is to climb down forward, or head-first, because that is how they go everywhere, including up the tree. Even on the ground, when they get trapped in a narrow, dead-end spot where it seems they could easily back up a few steps, they prefer to turn around to come out head-first.

Climbing down a tree head-first simply doesn't work because they can’t hold on to the tree securely with their curved claws pointing upward. When they try it, they quickly feel they are about to fall, so they pull back and don’t know what to do. They can walk laterally out a limb or climb higher, but if they don’t figure out how to climb down backward, they are mentally stuck in the tree.

Climbing down backward is not instinctive; it's a skill they must actively learn. Some cats learn it and can freely go up and down trees at will with no problem. Some cats, however, either never had a chance to learn it or they failed to learn it, and they are the ones who will get stuck. Sometimes, however, even a cat that knows how to climb down backward may get stuck in a certain spot in a tree, such as a large bulge in the trunk, where it requires him to hang almost upside down for a short period of time, and that may be too dangerous and scary for him to attempt.

People sometimes point out that squirrels and raccoons can climb down a tree head-first, so cats should be able to do that too. However, squirrels and raccoons have a big advantage that cats do not have. Squirrels and raccoons have a special joint in their hind feet that allows them to rotate those feet 180 degrees so that their claws can be pointed downward regardless of the orientation of their body. Cats can’t do that. The margay and clouded leopard are the only members of the cat family that have a similar joint in their hind feet, and they are excellent tree climbers who can climb up and down freely. All other cats do not have that joint, so their hind feet always point to their front. In order to climb down, they must do so backward.

Most of the time when we talk about a cat stuck in a tree, we are talking about a cat that can freely move around the tree but does not know how to climb down. There is another way a cat can be stuck, and that is when his body gets wedged in a tall, tight, vertical fork, and he is physically unable to escape it. The fork is tall, and the angle between the two forks is very narrow. The cat may have climbed up one fork and then slid down into it. His legs are dangling freely on both sides of the fork, and he is unable to push or pull himself out of it. The more he struggles, the deeper he slides down into the fork, and the tighter it constricts his body. The cat is physically stuck, and, unless he is rescued very soon, he will die there.

Of the cases I have seen, all were constricted around the waist except for one which was constricted around the chest. Constriction around the waist cuts off blood flow to the rear end, and the back end becomes paralyzed fairly quickly. The constriction and paralysis may cause his bladder and bowels to empty, and his rear end will appear filthy as a result. The more severe the constriction, the sooner the paralysis. Paralysis could happen in minutes, or it could be hours. Death can also occur in a matter of hours. Clearly, this is an emergency situation.

Fortunately, these vertical-fork-trap cases are uncommon, currently comprising only one percent of all the cases I have seen. Most rescuers have never seen a case. In two of the cases I saw, the cats, both constricted and paralyzed at the waist, were rushed to a veterinarian where they were euthanized. In three other cases, the cats died in the tree. One of them was chased by a dog up the tree around 11:00 PM and was found dead in the tree at daybreak, while another one, constricted at its upper chest, died less than thirty minutes after being chased up the tree. In two other cases which I did not see, the cats, both paralyzed at the waist, were rushed to a veterinarian where they got excellent care and fully recovered over a period of a few days. The one exceptional case (pictured here) was a cat named Sylvester who was freely moving about the tree when I arrived but fell into the tight fork while I was installing my rope. I could not see him at that time and did not even know he was in the tight fork until I climbed up to him. He was constricted around the chest between relatively large forks and had been there only 15 minutes at the most, so he survived his experience unscathed. Even though his case was atypical, I show his picture here to serve as an example only because of his happy outcome. Pictures of the other cases are too disturbing to publish.

“I’ve never seen a cat skeleton in a tree”

No discussion of cats in trees would be complete without addressing the ever-present, annoying and useless statement, “I’ve never seen a cat skeleton in a tree.” No matter where you go, no matter how many millions of times this statement has been spoken before, someone will repeat it as if he were the first person ever to say it, and he will expect you to admire him for his wisdom. This is one of those pesky platitudes that will never die, and every cat owner who has ever had a cat stuck in a tree has heard it. It’s persistent and inescapable, so let’s deal with it.

The cat skeleton statement and all its variants, when condensed and restated in a clear and concise way, mean the same thing: all cats will come down on their own. We have already seen how this statement is false even though some cats certainly can come down on their own. These people may have seen one case where a cat came down on its own and erroneously assumed, without investigating, that it is true for all cats. Furthermore, they will declare that, because of that one case they witnessed, they are now experts on the subject.

Not only is the cat skeleton statement incorrect, it is also harmful, and that is the real tragedy here. It convinces cat owners to wait before finding someone to rescue their cat, and that serves only to prolong the suffering of both the cat and the owner. This is often the real reason why cats are stuck in a tree for an excessive amount of time. It wasn’t because the owner was neglectful or didn’t care. Rather, it was because several people, with false confidence and authority, convinced the owner to wait for the cat to come down on its own.

Someone's failure to see a cat skeleton in a tree is meaningless unless they have spent a statistically significant amount of time searching a statistically significant number of trees over a statistically significant geographic area, and, even then, it does not prove that cats don't die in trees. I have not yet seen a cat skeleton in a tree, but I have seen dead cats in a tree.

The skeleton statement is also irrelevant. As rescuer Tom Dunlap says, "I've never seen a human skeleton in a tree, but that doesn't stop me from rescuing a person stuck in a tree." If a person is stuck and suffering, shouldn’t you rescue him even if you think he should have figured out how to get down on his own? It’s very simple. Rescuing the person or cat is the humane thing to do, and it simply doesn't matter if you have ever seen a skeleton in a tree or not. It's completely irrelevant.

When I hear the cat skeleton statement, I do my best to ignore it unless it comes from someone whom I expect to be receptive to counter-arguments. How you decide to respond to that statement is up to you. You may choose to ask them, “If the cat can come down, then why does it choose to stay there for days where it’s miserable and hungry?” If you want to take it more literally when they say that they have never seen a cat skeleton in a tree, you may want to ask them, “Have you looked?” If not, then it’s a meaningless statement. If so, then how extensively did they look, and how many bird skeletons did they find, and how many cat skeletons would they expect to find given how few bird skeletons they found, if any? If they put it in the form of a question asking if you have ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree, you can simply say, “No, I have never looked. Have you?” When they ask me if I have ever seen a dead cat in a tree, I simply say, “Yes,” and that typically ends the conversation.

Cat Stuck on a Roof

In the same way that a cat can get stuck in a tree, he can also get stuck on the roof of a house or building if he climbed a tree to get there. Many trees overhang a roof, and a cat in the tree can often easily jump from the tree to the roof. If the tree is the cat's only means to get down, and if the cat doesn't know how to climb down a tree, then he is stuck on the roof. Even if the cat knows how to climb down a tree, he may still be stuck on the roof if the limb he used to reach the roof is now out of his reach. A cat can jump down farther than he can jump up, and, if the limb droops significantly with his weight on it, he can easily jump down to the roof from there and then find the limb bending back up high out of his reach now that his weight is no longer on it. If a cat knows how to climb down a tree and knows a way to get back onto the tree from the roof, then he is not stuck, but it is wrong to assume that all cats that get on a roof will come down on their own. While I have never seen a cat skeleton in a tree, I have seen one on a roof.