Reviewed and updated for accuracy on July 30, 2018 by Katie Grzyb, DVM.
As a species, cats are known for their grace, agility and athleticism. However, there is one physical feat with which many cats have struggled—getting down after they climb a tree.
Why does a cat climbing a tree have so much trouble descending?
Why Do Cats Climb Trees in the First Place?
Katenna Jones, an associate certified applied animal behaviorist, certified cat behavior consultant and owner of Jones Animal Behavior in Warwick, Rhode Island, says that cats are an interesting species from a behavioral perspective because they can be predators to small creatures while being vulnerable to larger animals.
“You see behaviors at both ends of the predator/prey spectrum. So, as skilled hunters, they may chase their prey up a tree without realizing what they’ve gotten themselves into. On the other side of the coin, cats tend to go high when they feel threatened. So if a cat feels his life is in danger, he would very likely run up a tree, which offers safety and a vantage point,” explains Jones.
That said, Jones notes that looking too deeply into a cat’s reasons for climbing a tree might be a moot point. “Cats may also climb trees because they can and it’s fun,” she says.
Why Do They Get Stuck?
It’s really easy for cats to climb trees—cat claws are the ideal tools for propelling them upwards. But once they’re up high, they’ll find that getting down is much more difficult than getting up.
“A cat in a tree may have trouble coordinating their hind and front feet when they try to back down. It’s just not a movement cats normally do,” says Susan Bulanda, a canine and feline ethologist, author, and search and rescue trainer who lives in Maryland.
Bulanda adds that most cats jump from high places rather than climb down. “Think about it. When your cat climbs the couch, does she climb down? Or does she jump? Almost always, I would say jump. When cats climb trees, oftentimes it’s just too high to jump down and that’s why they get stuck.”
Dr. Myrna Milani, a veterinarian, consultant, teacher and author based in Charlestown, New Hampshire, says that in some cases, the ability to get down might not be the problem. “Sometimes, when a cat is ‘stuck’ in a tree, he’s really too scared to climb or jump down. It may be because something chased him up there, or he’s not used to being outside,” she explains.
Dr. Milani also notes that indoor cats that have been declawed are at greater risk of getting stuck in a tree if they manage to get outside. Declawed cats are unable to climb as well, but they can still climb. “These cats are at a big disadvantage when it comes to getting down from a tree. If they’re scared, they can get up without much issue, but coming down is nearly impossible.”
What To Do If A Cat Is Stuck in a Tree
While the old cartoons and TV shows tend to depict hysterical cat owners calling the fire department when their cat gets stuck in a tree, that is very much an exaggerated reaction.
Dr. Milani says the number one priority is keeping calm. “Standing under the tree where your cat is stuck and sobbing isn’t going to help anyone,” she says. “Stay calm and relaxed, because you don’t want to make your cat more agitated.”
Here are a few strategies that you can use to help get your cat out of a tree.
Lure Her With Food
As noted earlier, some cats that are “stuck” are simply choosing not to come down out of fear or for other cat-related reasons. Dr. Milani recommends putting out some of his favorite cat food that could entice your kitty to come down from his perch. Warming up some wet food slightly will increase the aroma so that you can coax cats down from the tree faster in most cases.
“In some areas, this would run the risk of attracting other animals, so if you’re going this route, I would suggest hanging out under the tree near the food. Bring a book and just relax, because that will show your cat that it’s okay to come down,” says Dr. Milani.
Climb Up After Her
Both Jones and Bulanda mention this option with a very big caveat—only climb up after the cat if you’re physically able, and never do it without assistance. “You must always have someone on the ground as a spotter,” Bulanda says. “That way, if you fall, or something else happens, there’s another person who can get help.”
Jones emphasizes that people should only attempt to retrieve the cat themselves if the cat is relatively calm and trusts them. “A stranger might scare the cat into a more dangerous situation,” she says.
Jones also notes that contacting a local roofing, painting, contracting, pest control or electric company could be helpful. “They might have an extra-long ladder to borrow.”
Make a Ramp
“Depending on the tree and how high your cat climbed, you might be able to use a sturdy board as a ramp to give the cat an easy route down,” Bulanda says. “This strategy is much less risky to you and less risky to the cat than climbing up after him.”
Call for Help
If the cat is too agitated, too high up, or you’re otherwise unable to rescue her yourself, it’s time to consult with professionals. “Call your local animal shelter or rescue. They probably have advice or helpful resources on hand,” Bulanda says.
By Kate Hughes
Image via Photo by Kai/Shutterstock.com