What Happens if a Cat is Never Rescued?
The only cat-in-tree cases that I have personally seen are the ones in which I rescued the cat or watched the cat rescue itself. I often get calls for a rescue where the cat comes down or falls down before I can get there, but I never know about the cases where no one calls me, and no one can study the cases about which no one knows. Since I can’t be there to study the cats that do not get rescued, I can’t say with certainty that I know what happens to them. I can, however, make some educated guesses.
A number of cats will climb down on their own. They usually begin coming down head-first, but after losing their grip and spinning around, they sometimes learn at that moment that going down backward isn’t such a bad idea and may actually continue all the way down that way. Sometimes they turn to come down head-first again and struggle to continue that way while falling or sliding to the next limb or spinning around and gripping onto the trunk again. They will continue this scary descent until they fall to the ground or eventually reach the point where they are comfortable jumping to the ground. In the end, the desperate clinging to the tree and swinging around can cause some damage to one or more of their claws.
In order for a cat to decide to climb down, he must be motivated by something that is stronger than his fear of falling. Sometimes, he can be motivated by something attractive on the ground, but the attraction usually needs to be pretty extreme to overcome his fear of falling. However, if a large bird, such as a hawk, owl, or eagle, swoops down and lands in the tree above him, I can almost guarantee that the cat will dart down the tree in a hurry, because his fear of being killed is stronger than his fear of falling. One would think that severe thunderstorms would be powerful enough to motivate him to come down, yet I have never seen that happen. I have even had to rescue cats that did not come down while fireworks were exploding above them. Some cats need extreme motivation, but some cats may come down without any apparent triggering event at all, and we can only guess what goes on inside their mind. Perhaps they are simply not giving any thought to falling, so the motivation does not need to be very strong.
If a cat climbs down on his own, he is likely to do so in the first few days after climbing the tree. After that, he gets weaker as time goes on, and it seems that it would be less likely that he would choose to climb down at that point. However, adrenaline is a very powerful drug, so if something happens to frighten him, he will have plenty of energy at that time to climb down or jump regardless of how much time he has spent in the tree.
Anyone who has seen cat videos on the internet knows that cats often fall. While we commonly see them fall from furniture in the home, they can fall from a tree as well. Cats are not particularly careful when walking in a tree, and they commonly walk along skinny limbs out to the wispy tips where there is little to support their weight. Sometimes they manage to navigate the dangers just fine while other times they slip but manage to hold on and pull themselves back up. Sometimes, however, they fall. Even when they are on larger limbs, they can slip, or they fall asleep and then slide or roll off the limb.
Generally, the timing and likelihood of a cat falling out of a tree is proportional to the size of the limb on which he is resting. That is, the smaller the limb, the more likely he will fall and the sooner he is likely to fall. The larger the limb, the less likely he will fall, and the longer it will be before he falls. That’s not a guarantee. A cat may fall off a large limb the first day or stay on a small limb for weeks, but, in general, given enough time, I suspect that most cats will eventually fall.
There are some cases where the cat will never fall to the ground, and these are the cases where you really could find a cat skeleton in a tree. In some trees, cats can get themselves in large areas where they can rest with little or no risk of falling. Trees whose top portion broke off during a storm are left with a bowl-like hollow in the top where a cat can go and safely rest completely out of sight of anyone on the ground. The cat will never fall out of that tree, and, if he is not rescued, or if he doesn’t ever find the courage to climb down, he will eventually die there unseen.
When a cat falls, the outcome depends on how and where he lands. Cats instinctively stretch their body out like a parachute and land with their body straight and flat on the ground, but if they hit any obstacles along the way, they may be thrown off balance and have insufficient time to recover before landing. If they land on their butt or head, they will likely suffer serious injuries. If they land flat, however, they have a very good chance of surviving the fall without serious injury.
Where they land is important. If they land on soft, flat ground, they will likely be fine. However, if they land on any hard objects, including another limb in the tree, serious or fatal injury could result. It’s important that they land flat with the entire length of their spine hitting the ground at the same time, and, the softer the ground, the better their chances of avoiding injury. I have seen cats jump or fall from as high as 70 feet and survive the landing just fine, but there are no guarantees. Sometimes a cat will limp for a short time afterward. I have also heard of a cat that suffered a broken jaw, and another that landed on a clay flower pot causing a ruptured bladder. Injury is possible even when they land properly on soft ground, and if you see the cat run off immediately after landing, that does not mean he is not injured. It’s a good sign, but the cat must still be examined.Many times, people report that their cat is missing, and, after a few days, suddenly find their cat waiting for them at the door one morning. We can’t ever be sure where the cat was during his time away, but there is a good possibility he was stuck in a tree and eventually either climbed down or fell down. If he is limping or has a bloody claw, that is a strong sign that he was in a tree.
If the cat does not climb down, fall down, or get rescued, then he will die there. Whether he falls at that point or become lodged in the tree depends on where he is. When cats are exhausted in a tree or want to sleep without falling, they often drape their body limply over a large limb like a wet rag hanging out to dry, and it’s easy to imagine that they could fall asleep in that position and never wake up. There are several other ways in which the body could remain in the tree. Some may decompose in place, some may eventually fall, and some may succumb to vultures.
How long can a cat survive in a tree?
I can’t say exactly how long a cat can survive in a tree, since much depends on the cat’s health and the environmental conditions. I rescued the cat pictured here after it was stuck in that spot for exactly three weeks, and, other than losing weight and rubbing his feet raw, he survived it just fine. I have heard of even longer cases. During hot weather, it helps greatly if the cat gets rain several times, since he can lick the water off his fur. The more often it rains, the better, as the water intake will sustain him much longer, and the rain and clouds will keep him cooler in hot weather. In very cold weather, however, rain would increase the threat of hypothermia.
Cats are amazing creatures. I don’t know how they do it. They are stuck standing on uncomfortable, small limbs for long periods of time, shifting and distributing their weight from one painful pressure point to another, afraid of falling, fighting sleep, feeling hungry, needing to pee, hanging onto the limbs tightly when the wind tosses them around, all while being exposed to very hot, cold, or stormy weather. I don’t know how they can stand it and survive so long without food and then find the energy to climb all the way down or fall from great heights and then land with a thud on the ground without injury. Cats are truly amazing.