Cat Climbing Trees

ginger or orange tabby cat climbing a tree

People search for “cat climbing trees”, although I am not quite sure why – ummm..I think it is because they are looking for cat furniture! Or it might simply be an interest in the superb agility of cats expressed in tree climbing. Or it might be about how to stop their cat climbing trees because it can look a bit scary to us to see our cat 30 feet up a tree and sometimes (rarely) unable to get down. More on that below.

In playing safe, therefore, I have linked this subject with cat anatomy, the wild cats and our domestic cat companions in pictures and words.

Cat Anatomy

white tiger climbing a treeThe cat’s sense of balance, powerful hind quarters, extremely flexible back, long tail – in specialist tree dwellers which aids balance – and claws to grip, all contribute to making the cat a skillful climber.This is in addition to its skills in jumping, stalking and running.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of flexibility in the back to aid athleticism is demonstrated in the cheetah. However, this flexibility is used to increase speed in this instance and not climbing ability as the cheetah is a ground based cat (see cheetah speed). The cheetah also has a long tail, which aids balance at high speed when changing direction as it must to catch agile prey. One last thing about he cheetah, this cat’s claws are permanently out, probably to aid grip when moving fast. The long tail is very apparent on two large wild cats and one small wildcat. In all cases it is long to act as a counter balance much like a high wire performer uses a large pole.

leopard climbing tree in silhouetteThe clouded leopard and the snow leopard both have exceptionally long tails for balance. The clouded leopard is a tree dweller and an exceptional climber but considerably larger than the Margay or Ocelot. The snow leopard climbs rock faces at an average of 40 degrees and also has a magnificent and vey long tail.

There are wild cats that are exclusively forest dwellers and tree dwellers and the best of them all are Margays, a small but highly adapted and agile wild cat of great charm that thinks it is a monkey!

So well adapted are they to life in the large trees of virgin ancient forest that they not only have long tails but are the only felid, with the clouded leopard, that has extremely flexible ankle joints, which can swivel through 180º. This allows for rapid changes in direction and movement up and down trees. In other words they can come down trees head first. Talking about a cat climbing trees, this is a cat descending trees and very rapidly (my Norwegian Forest Cat could do that too by the way, without swivelling ankles!). Margays typically sleep 23 feet off the ground in their trees. Margays can be domesticated if hand reared.

stray cat picture by MAR One of the great dilemmas, though, of the domestic cat, is if they are tree climbers, or if they get the chance to exercise that skill, to get them down if they are unable to unaided. Without flexible, swivelling paws, they have to shimmy down backwards allowing their claws to grip.

Sometimes they are stuck high up demanding to be rescued or they fall and when they do we know that they have a high chance of survival if they have sufficient time to right themselves and float down with limbs and body outstretched in the gliding flying squirrel position (see cat falling).

The all American Cougar (Puma or mountain lion) uses its tree climbing ability to escape dogs when being hunted by people, where it is promptly shot (clever that isn’t it).  Few other animals have the cat’s ability to climb and for that reason escaping up a tree is the best route for a cat, wild or domestic, when preyed upon.

Of the big cats, the lion is a less good climber than the tiger. The leopard has the extraordinary ability to drag huge carcasses up trees, a demonstration of its superb climbing skills and strength and it is said they can climb the highest of trees and come down head first. The lions of Lake Manyara, Tanzania, are tree climbing and sleeping lions.

A cat climbing trees uses its superb and sophisticated sense of balance which plays a big role in addition to the other attributes mentioned.

abyssinian cat climbing

Cat climbing trees – Abyssinian cat – photo copyright polaneze (Flickr)

The domestic cat

Cat climbing trees? – nah – window screens, curtains, you name it….cat climbing indoors There is no doubt about it, though, that our cat companions, when given the chance, can show off their tree climbing skills. My Missie could race up and down a tree despite being an indoor cat most of her life.

The domestic cat has all the attributes of its wild cousin except for the specialist adaptations referred to. The strong musculo-skeletal frame has evolved to:

  • allow the cat to hunt efficiently
  • escape from danger effectively (by climbing tress!)

Feline muscles are more flexible than those of other animals, which gives the cat a great range of movement1. Muscles only contract and there are three types of muscle tissue:

  1. Fast twitch fatiguing – these work fast and tire fast
  2. Fast twitch fatigue-resistant – these work fast and tire less fast
  3. Slow twitch – these work more slowly but tire more slowly1

A cat’s muscles mainly consist of the first type. A cat has little stamina and its body temperature will rise in less than 60 seconds of sprinting so that it has to stop1. Many cat climbing tree escapades start with a vertical jump. This is carefully worked out by judging distance and calculating the power required. The extensor muscles of all four legs operate at the same time to propel the cat. All four paws leave the ground simultaneously.

Sometimes, when the jump has to be inch perfect you will see the cat sway its head from side to side. It will also do this when staring at prey and about to pounce. This action is using its binocular vision to maximum effect to check the precise distance. Other predators employ the same technique. The subject matter of the gaze is displaced by the head sway allowing judgement to be enhanced2.

Cat Climbing Trees — Sources:

Myself primarily

1. Encyclopaedia of the Cat by Dr Bruce Fogle

2. Cat Watching by Dr Desmond Morris

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