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Cats like to climb trees but can’t climb down very easily. Find out why cats climb trees and how you can stop them getting stuck  

Cats are excellent climbers and can often reach impressive heights, whether it’s on the top of wardrobes and cat towers, or up in the trees outdoors. However, once they’ve climbed up, they can have difficulty getting down again, sometimes leading to them getting stuck in hard-to-reach places. Before we explore why they struggle to climb down, let’s find out why they climb up in the first place. 

ginger tabby cat sitting in tree branches

Why do cats climb trees? 

Cats are good at climbing trees because their sharp, extendable claws help them grip onto the bark and their strong back legs help to propel them upwards. There are a few different reasons why cats like to climb trees.

  1. Chasing prey. Cats are natural predators with an inbuilt need to hunt. Even though we feed them plenty at home, they still need to be able to stalk, chase and pounce as this releases feel-good hormones in their brains and gives them an opportunity to exercise. Being up high gives cats a good view of their surroundings to help them spot potential prey. When pursuing prey such as squirrels or birds, cats may chase them up a tree but be so distracted by the hunt they don’t realise they’ve climbed too high to get back down. Find out more about cats and hunting.
  2. Escaping danger. As well as being predators, cats are also prey and so being up in the trees helps them feel safe and gives them a good vantage point to spot potential dangers. On the ground, if a cat feels threatened, their first response will usually be to run away, and this may lead them to climb a tree for safety. In the panic of fleeing, they may climb too high and struggle to get down. Find out more about why cats hide. 
  3. Exploring. Cats are naturally curious creatures who love to roam around their territory. If that territory contains trees, they may want to climb up to explore their surroundings from every level.

Why can’t cats climb down trees?

black-and-white cat climbing up tree trunk

While cats are good at climbing up trees, they’re not so well built for climbing back down. Their instinct is to climb down facing forwards, but the curve of their claws makes it difficult to grip the bark, and they struggle to co-ordinate their back and front legs. Other animals such as squirrels, are able to rotate their back feet so that the claws are facing upwards for better grip, but cats cannot do this. 

When climbing, cats will usually be careful to make sure they have a safe and easy route back down again, and their preferred method to get down is to jump. You have probably seen your cat leap down from the sofa or bed with ease, using their strong back legs to propel themselves. When cats get stuck up trees, it’s usually because it’s too high for them to jump down safely. 

What do I do if a cat is stuck up a tree?

If your cat is stuck up a tree, or you find an unknown cat who you think is stuck, the most important thing is to stay calm, as getting agitated will only make the cat more scared. Cats will usually figure out a way to get down on their own, so give them a bit of time and space to do this before you intervene. If the cat can’t get down on their own, follow these simple steps to get them down safely. 

ginger-and-white kitten sitting in a tree

  1. Create a safe route down. The cat may be stuck up the tree because it is too high for them to jump down. If you can, try placing sturdy items near to the tree to create a step, or series of steps, they can use to jump down in stages. Alternatively, you could create a ramp for them or prop a ladder up against the tree that they might be able to use. Once this is in place, leave the area for a while as the cat may be more likely to come down if no one else is around. 
  2. Lure them with food. If a cat is reluctant to come down from a tree, try enticing them with some tasty food. Shaking a packet of cat treats or putting out a bowl of their favourite cat food may be enough to encourage them. You could even try warming up wet cat food to strengthen the smell and make it more appealing. 
  3. Call for help. Cats will usually manage to get down from trees themselves, particularly if you help them by creating a safe route to the ground. However, if they have been stuck for more than 24 hours, contact the RSPCA in England and Wales, the USPCA in Northern Ireland or the Scottish SPCA in Scotland for help. Don’t call the fire service as they will not attend unless an animal welfare officer is already there. The RSPCA, UPSCA or Scottish SPCA animal welfare officer can call the fire service themselves if they need assistance. You could also try contacting a local tree surgeon to see if they can help. 
  4. Climb up after them. If all other options have failed, you could try climbing up the tree to bring the cat down yourself, but only if you are sure it is safe for you to do so. Use a sturdy ladder if possible and always make sure someone else is on the ground in case you get into difficulty or fall. This method will work best if the cat is calm, you are known to the cat and they trust you. A stranger coming after them may scare the cat into climbing even higher up the tree. 

How to stop cats climbing trees

Climbing is a natural behaviour for cats and getting to a high vantage point can help them to feel safe. Most of the time, cats will be able to get down from trees by themselves and so it is ok to let them climb if they want to. 

If there is a particular tree or set of trees in your garden that you want to stop cats from climbing, the best deterrent is to surround the lower section of the tree trunk with a hard, smooth material, such as plastic sheeting, that cats will not be able to grip with their claws and climb. You will also need to remove any nearby objects that cats could leap from to get to the tree and its branches. There is not much you can do to prevent cats from climbing trees that are not on your property. 

Why can cats climb trees and dogs can’t?

If a cat comes across an unfamiliar dog, they may climb a nearby tree to get away from them, because they know that the dog won’t be able to follow them. This is because most dogs aren’t built for climbing. While their claws are thick and strong for digging, they are not sharp enough to grip onto tree trunks, and dogs don’t have the flexibility that cats do to help them scale trees and jump back down again. In the wild, their wolf ancestors hunt in wide open spaces with few trees, and so their strong legs are built more for running over long distances than they are for climbing. There are some breeds of dogs that can climb trees, including the Raccoon Dog, New Guinea Singing Dog, Jack Russell Terrier, Tree Walker Coonhound, and the Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog, as they have been specifically bred to climb trees to catch prey. 

Find more advice about keeping cats safe outside. 

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