What To Do for a Cat in a Tree
When presented with a cat stuck in a tree, most people do not know what to do. They stand there, as I did when I first experienced this, looking up at the cat so high out of reach feeling helpless and lost. You need help, so this page is devoted to you. Here, I list the first steps you should take, I show you how to find an experienced tree-climbing rescuer, and, failing that, I describe several rescue methods you can try on your own. Your highest chance of success comes with finding a tree-climbing rescuer, but, if no one is available, then you need other rescue options however imperfect they may be.
Notify the Property Owner
If the tree is not on your property, you will need to enlist the cooperation of the property owner. I have found that they are almost always sympathetic and cooperative, but I have run into a few exceptions as well. If the property owner is difficult, just remain friendly, accommodating, and respectful while you discuss it, and they will usually allow you to proceed. In extreme cases, remain friendly, but it may become necessary to see if a local animal control officer or law enforcement officer will mediate. It is usually considered animal cruelty to prevent the rendering of aid to a suffering animal, so the property owner may ultimately have no choice but to allow you to proceed.
Prepare for a Fall
One thing we have already learned about cats in trees is that they often fall, so the first thing to do is prepare for that possibility. Take note of any hard objects underneath the tree and work to move the ones that can be moved and cover the ones that cannot be moved. Small objects such as flower pots, lawn furniture, small bird baths, etc., should be moved out from under the tree. Large or heavy objects that can’t be moved should be covered with anything available that will soften the blow should the cat fall and land there. Folded blankets, lawn furniture cushions, bags of leaves, and anything else available are suitable. It seems that cats often get stuck in trees by a fence, so folded blankets or cushions over the top of the fence are good for preventing severe injuries. It is important that you prepare for a fall all around the tree, not just the area beneath the cat at the moment, because cats move around, and there is no way to predict where a cat will be when it falls.
If you are able, consider suspending a tarp or large blanket at least three-to-four feet over the ground in the most likely landing spots. Use rope to tie the corners of the tarp to trees or any other suitable anchor that is available. Ideally, the anchor should help absorb the energy of impact by bending or yielding slightly so that the cat is not subjected to the full force of the impact. For this reason, small trees make better anchors than large ones.
It often happens that cats come down or fall out of the tree, so if you leave the cat unattended for a while, especially overnight, then you need to consider where the cat will go once it is on the ground. If the cat is in familiar territory, then he will likely go straight home. If the cat is not familiar with the territory, however, then you need to do whatever you can to ensure that he does not leave the area and get lost. Once his feet hit the ground, he is most likely going to run to the nearest safe place to hide, and the direction he runs may be completely unpredictable. It's a good idea to set at least two traps for him to make sure he does not leave the area, and they should be placed in the areas to which he will most likely run for safety. If you place the traps in the open under the tree, he will run past them, because his sense of safety overrides any interest he has for food. If you set traps, you must make sure that the cat will be safe from predators or other dangers until you return, and he should not be left unattended for long. If you have access to some trail cameras, then place them in position under the tree so that you can at least know when he came down and which direction he went.
Is the Cat Really Stuck?
The next step is to determine if the cat is really stuck. Some cats know how to climb down, and, sometimes, they go up into a tree for a break away from the activity below and return to the ground when they are ready. It’s possible that this is a regular activity in their own territory or it could be that the cat is seeking safety there during the day and going down at night to hunt for food.
I was once called to rescue a cat at a local public garden, and, when I went there to investigate, I found the cat up at the top of a short, very dense tree just sleeping peacefully hidden from view. The tree was so dense that he would have had no trouble coming down on his own. It turned out that the cat is one of three community cats that live there, and there is a small group of people who coordinate the care and feeding of the cats. One of these caretakers told me that the cat frequently goes up there to get away from people. The cat was not stuck, so I left it alone.
It is possible that the cat knows how to climb down on its own but refuses to do so because of threats on the ground. For example, if a dog chased the cat up the tree, and the dog is still present or nearby, then the cat will not want to come down. The threat needs to be removed before you can determine if the cat can come down on its own. Some cats may come down very soon after the threat is removed, but some may need to be given an entire night before they feel safe enough to come down. The only way to know if the cat is stuck is to give the cat enough quiet time to come down. One night should be enough time, but check on it regularly to make sure it is not going down and back up.
Do NOT Leave Food Out
Everyone will tell you to leave a can of food at the base of the tree to lure the cat down, but that is a bad idea. First, it doesn’t work. The cat needs more than a can of food to overcome his fear of falling. He is probably already hungry and knows that food can be found only back on the ground, so he already has that motivation. Secondly, it actually prevents the cat from coming down by attracting other threatening cats, dogs, or predators, including the one that chased it up the tree in the first place. You can be sure the cat will not voluntarily come down if there is a hostile creature on the ground waiting for him.
Find the Owner
If the cat is not known, then you should work to find the owner. Once the owner is found, you can turn the rescue over to them while offering advice, if needed. First, ask the people around you and knock on nearby doors. If that fails, then check nextdoor.com and the local “Lost Pets” pages for that area to see if the cat has been reported as lost. If not, then post a “Found Cat” notice on those websites. Usually, cats get stuck in a tree in their own neighborhood, so Nextdoor will often produce an answer about the cat. However, sometimes cats get lost and wander far from home or get displaced by stowing away in someone’s vehicle, so be sure to post on the sites that reach farther beyond the neighborhood as well. Be sure to take a picture of the cat, if possible, or get a good look at the cat to notice its color and markings so you can describe it accurately. Take note of any collar the cat may be wearing and if one ear is tipped or notched. Also, notice if the cat remains perfectly quiet or talks to you or other people down on the ground. A quiet cat that won’t even look at you is more likely to be feral, but that is not guaranteed, so don’t make assumptions.
Coax the Cat Down
You should always make an effort to coax the cat down. It won't work every time, but it really works in some cases. Follow the link for detailed instructions.
Find a Rescuer
The safest way to get a cat down is to find a qualified cat rescuer. Follow the link for detailed instructions.
Do It Yourself
If no rescuers are available, or if you just want to do it yourself, then here are some rescue methods to try. The probability of success is much lower, but, sometimes, it works.