My cat is stuck in a tree! What should I do?
If your beloved cat is stuck in a tree, you’re probably doing what I would be doing right now: panicking.
But now is the time to calm down, think clearly, and plan. Your cat is probably not in imminent danger right this minute, so you have some time to gather equipment, call the right professionals, and take whatever steps you need to take to get her back in your arms.
But that doesn’t mean you have all the time in the world to wait for him to find his own way out of the tree. Dehydration, exposure to the elements, and liver disease from lack of food for even just a couple of days (see: hepatic lipidosis) can take the life of a cat who has been in a tree too long, even if he eventually gets rescued.
And the longer a cat is in a tree, the weaker she will become, and the less able she will be to rescue herself.
But let’s start with some background information about this topic first, so you can understand what you’re dealing with.
Why do cats get stuck in trees?
How many times have you had this thought: cat, what were you THINKING???!!!
We can assume cats are not planners. As she was going up the tree, your cat was probably not thinking to herself, “before I go too far, how the heck am I going to get down?”
He might have been having a ball, chasing a squirrel up the tree. Or maybe there was a scary dog and “up” seemed like the best place to escape to. Or maybe he was just doing what cats do: trying to get a bird’s-eye view of the world.
Cats can climb up trees, but not down, because of the way their toenails curl. They hook in to tree bark going up, but offer no stopping power against gravity head first back down the tree.
How are squirrels able to climb up and down a tree?
Certain animals are able to climb up AND down a tree, such as squirrels. How? Squirrels are able to rotate their ankle joints 180° so that their claws are facing the opposite direction when they’re going downhill. Cats can’t do that.
Actually, there are three wild cats that can do that: the margay, the marbled cat, and the clouded leopard. Like squirrels, these three wild cats can rotate their ankles. Our housecats cannot.
Here are two amazing videos that show cats helping themselves down a tree, by going back the way they came: with their heads facing UP the tree.
How long can my cat survive in a tree while I try to get help?
There are stories of cats lasting two weeks in a tree. It’s possible that a cat stuck that long will drink dew or rainwater off her own fur to avoid dehydration. But even just two days without food is long enough for a cat to suffer a life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis, in which a cat’s liver becomes overwhelmed with fatty tissue being used by the body for energy.
If your cat is unable to get herself down from the tree after two days, assume she will never be able to get herself down. She will only continue to get weaker and sicker after two days, and be less likely to be able to help herself.
When you shouldn’t wait at all to help a stuck cat
The stuck cat is a kitten. Kittens do not have the strength to keep themselves safely in a tree branch, waiting for help. They are more susceptible to dehydration, starvation, bad weather, and predators, including birds of prey. They just haven’t developed the climbing skills yet to be able to help themselves down.
The stuck cat is declawed. There is no hope for a cat without claws. I can’t imagine how a cat without claws got himself into a tree in the first place.
The stuck cat is an indoor cat. Indoor cats might not have the climbing experience required to successfully negotiate a tree (especially on the way down).
Bad weather is forecast. Strong winds can knock a cat out of the tree. Blazing heat, freezing cold, and driving rain can weaken a cat. Lightning is dangerous to the cat and to any human who hopes to help her.
You’ve waited long enough. After two days, the cat is unlikely to be able to help herself out of the tree.
The stuck cat is injured. If you believe the treed cat is injured or wedged and literally stuck somehow, the only way down for this cat is with your help.
You have trigger-happy neighbors. If the stuck cat is meowing relentlessly and bothering a crabby neighbor, you might want to act more quickly. Some people would think nothing of helping a cat out of a tree – with a bullet.
Can my cat jump out of the tree without getting injured?
Cats can survive surprisingly far falls, sometimes with only minor injuries.
There are documented stories of cats falling 42 stories and surviving. That’s almost 600 feet. A study in the American Veterinary Medical Association looked at 132 cats who’d fallen an average of five-and-a-half stories and lived, and found that cats actually had a better chance of surviving a longer fall (more than 10 stories) than a shorter fall (five to nine stories). In longer falls, cats have time to right themselves, use their bodies like parachutes to slow their descent, and arch their backs to reduce the impact upon hitting the ground.
But if your cat is not choosing to jump out of the tree, and only falls after she becomes too weak to cling to a branch, her chance of survival is very slim.
If your cat does fall (or even jumps) from a tree, take him to the vet. Cats can have invisible injuries, like broken ribs or vertebrae, a ruptured bladder, punctured lungs, a broken jaw, or palate.There's a name for these kinds of injuries, by the way. It's called "high-rise syndrome."
How to get your cat out of a tree
I’m going to assume that you’ve already tried calling your kitty, and you’ve offered some tasty, smelly treats, like tunafish or sardines, that might tempt her, even from a distance.
Note that you shouldn’t leave any cat food or treats on the ground and then walk away. You might end up attracting all the neighborhood dogs and wild animals to the base of the tree, ensuring that your cat will NEVER come back down on her own.
STEP 1 – Clear the area
You need to clear the area around the tree of dangerous objects, and of things that might be keeping the cat up in the tree.
Are there barking dogs or other animals nearby? Take them inside. These may be the reason the cat decided to escape upwards in the first place. If your cat is planning to come down on his own, he needs to feel safe.
Are there objects near or around the tree? A cat who descends from a tree on her own will likely get to a certain point and then jump (or fall) the rest of the way. Make sure there is nothing dangerous for her to land on.
STEP 2 – Lean a ladder or large branch against the tree trunk
Give your cat a fighting chance to help himself out of the tree, unless he is just too far up the trunk. If you have a 10-foot ladder, and your cat is 30 feet up a tree, it’s not going to help. Skip this step.
If your cat isn’t too far up, and if you have a ladder, or another large, long object your cat can sink her claws into, like a heavy tree branch, lean it securely against the tree trunk. Now evaluate. Could the object actually help your stuck cat get down? If so, walk away and give your cat a chance to privately consider her options.
Do not wait more than 24 hours, especially if your cat is a kitten, indoor cat, injured, or if any of the other circumstances listed above apply.
STEP 3 – Get professional help
If your cat hasn’t helped himself down by now, enlist the help of a professional.
The idea of calling the fire department is a quaint one, but don’t count on help from this corner. Understandably, firefighters are in the business of helping humans, and they and their equipment can’t be otherwise engaged helping cats.
That being said, here’s an exciting video of firefighters in Almeda County in California helping Potatoes reunite with his family. So, you can call the fire department in your town, but understand if they refuse to help.
Cat Rescue: Today Alameda County Firefighters on Rescue 24 made a cat rescue in unincorporated Ashland, CA. “Potatoes” was very happy to meet Firefighter Blake O’hara and be reunited with his family. #ALCOFIRE #ALCORESCUE24 pic.twitter.com/5yT7NKCiV5— Alameda County Fire (@AlamedaCoFire) May 1, 2020
Your next stop is this amazing directory of tree climbers around the world who are committed to rescuing cats stuck in trees:
Many of the folks listed here do this work as a form of community service, but be sure to ask about a fee, in case there is one. Don’t assume that someone will put their own life at risk climbing a tree for a cat without compensation.
Watch this incredible rescue of Marsa performed by Canopy Cat Rescue in Washington. Note the special equipment the climber is using - don't try this at home, folks!
If you live in an area that is not served by any of the professionals in this directory, start Googling. Try these search terms:
Add the phrase “near me” after each one. In other words, try, “arborist near me,” to find the closest professional. Arborists/tree climbers have special training and special equipment that enable them to shimmy up tall tree trunks. Expect to pay for this service. Ask about their fee on the phone.
STEP 4 – When all else fails
If your cat will not descend on his own, and if there are no professionals in the area willing to climb a tree on behalf of your cat, you can try this method that saved orange-and-white tabby, Hank, in Washington, D.C.
In this case, a local tree company was called to help Hank, but the branches were too flimsy for a climber.
For Hank, they fashioned a pulley – something you can try, too. They shot a bean bag, attached to a string, over the branch above Hank’s branch.
Depending upon how high the branch is, you might be able to toss a light rope with a weight on the end of it (a bag of rocks, a tennis ball – get creative) over a nearby branch. Here’s a demonstration of someone using the safety weight that comes with a rope saw to do this very same thing:
Once they got the rope over the branch above Hank, they tied a basket, filled with a soft blanket and Hank’s favorite things, and raised it to Hank’s branch. He jumped right in! Hank was lowered safely to the ground. Hopefully his tree-climbing days are behind him.
How to keep your cat from getting stuck in a tree
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Do you really need me to tell you this? Keep your cat inside. For a thousand reasons, keeping your cat indoors will extend his life.
If you want to give your cat a taste of the outdoors without risking his health and safety, consider a catio – an enclosed outdoor space. If, like me, you’re not particularly handy, you can purchase a ready-to-assemble catio, like this one by PawHut.
Alternatively, you can leash-walk your cat. I know the maker of these escape-proof harnesses, CatAbout, and I highly recommend them.
If your cat must go outside, you can try a motion-sensing device that makes a noise and flashes when something (hopefully your cat) approaches. Here’s one by Noltse. The problem is that your cat has to only get stuck in YOUR tree. You can’t go putting these things all around the neighborhood.
If your cat has a penchant for getting stuck in one particular tree (and you own it), you can also try wrapping the base in something slippery, like thick vinyl sheeting or even tin foil.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 How do squirrels climb down trees head-first? Nuts About Squirrels. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2022, from http://www.nutsaboutsquirrels.com/1046/how-do-squirrels-climb-down-trees-head-first/
 Dempsey, Caitlin. “Which Cats Can Descend Trees Head First?” Explore Cats, 14 Oct. 2021, https://www.explorecats.com/descending-trees-head-first/.
 Does a falling cat always land on its feet?. Stossel, John, and Frank Mastropolo. ABC News, ABC News Network, 11 May 2008, https://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=3474258&page=1.
 Hedgpeth, Dana. “When This Woman's Cat Got Stuck in a Tree, Neighbors Stepped up to Help.” Reader's Digest, Reader's Digest, 15 Apr. 2022, https://www.rd.com/article/neighbors-rescue-cat-stuck-in-tree/.
 ASPCA Pet Insurance. “High-Rise Syndrome in Cats.” Pet Insurance Coverage, ASPCA Pet Insurance, 20 July 2017, https://www.aspcapetinsurance.com/resources/high-rise-syndrome-in-cats/.