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?

Actually, they can climb down, but the problem is that many cats just don’t know how.  To climb down, they must go down backwards, that is, butt-first.  Some cats know how to do that, but for others, it is simply not instinctive.  Instead, they try to go down in a more natural head-first manner, and there is no way they can adequately hold themselves up with their upward pointing claws that way.  Sadly, many cats either can't figure out how to go down backward or are too afraid to do it, and they are truly stuck.

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 bark of the tree and pull themselves up.  But when they try to come down head-first, those claws are now pointing 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.  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.

You may have seen a squirrel or raccoon going down a tree head-first and assumed that cats can do the same, but squirrels and raccoons have a special advantage that cats do not 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.  The uncommon margay and clouded leopard are the only members of the cat family that have a similar joint in their hind feet.  All other cats do not, so their hind feet always point to their front.  In order 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, but it also illustrates just how frightening it must be for the cat. Even if he knows how to do it, it is easy to understand why he might be too afraid to attempt it.

 “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.  They are wrong.  The way they most often express this is with the question, “Have you ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree?”  Sometimes they say "I have never seen a cat skeleton in a tree" or "I have never seen a dead cat in a tree."  I don’t know how or why this expression became so popular and attractive, but if you ever ask a bunch of people for advice about a cat in a tree, you are certain to be bombarded with it.

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.  These cat-stuck-in-tree deniers ignore the reality that the cat is staying up there for days or even weeks in miserable conditions without food or water or a comfortable place to stand or sleep and clearly wants down.  Never have I heard them explain why the cat would choose to stay there.  Are they suggesting that this might be the cat equivalent of some kind of religious fasting ritual?  Reality contradicts them, and it is absurd to claim that the cat lacks motivation.  It is not motivation that the cat needs; 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 fall when they slip or fall asleep, they may finally summon the courage to jump, 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 down.  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 they 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 must also consider what happens to a cat as he lingers in the tree.  With each day, the cat gets more dehydrated, sleep-deprived and weak.  He will eventually be too exhausted to climb down even if he knew how.  With each day, there is an increasing probability that he will fall out of the tree, either when he slips or while sleeping.

Attacks by vultures are also possible.  Otherwise, in extreme cases, the cat might die in the tree and his body may become lodged in a crotch of the tree, only to be dislodged later by vultures or the rain and movement of the branch in high winds.  Or, his body may decompose there and the bones would fall one by one over time.  So, even when the cat dies in his tree prison, it is unlikely that his skeleton will remain in the tree.

So, the reason why you are not likely to see a cat skeleton in a tree can be summed up in one word:  gravity.

I can understand the attractiveness of this cat skeleton response.  It’s simple; it is an easy answer for someone who has never given any thought to the issue or wants a simple answer to a difficult problem that otherwise makes them feel helpless.  It gives the user a sense of knowledge, authority 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.

There are those who will say that my arguments here cannot be trusted because I am biased.  My response to that is this:  bias is irrelevant.  A statement is either true or false regardless of the person who said it.  The question to ask is not, "Is he biased? "  Rather, the proper question to ask is, "Is this true?"

The information I present here is all true to the best of my knowledge and experience, but I always recognize that I can be mistaken.  For that reason, I always welcome new information that gives me reason to re-evaluate the positions I have taken.  If you have such information, please send it to me, and I will certainly be eager to evaluate it.  If I learn that I have been wrong, I will correct it here.  If I learn that every rescue I have done has been a complete waste of time, then I will stop doing them.  I am always open to learning where I am wrong.

Are you?