Some cats don’t climb down trees because they don’t want to. Some may be anxious about climbing down. It is possible that a few are not sure about doing it. I’ll discuss the last reason, first.
The Cat Has Not Learned To Do It
The idea that cats who get stuck up trees don’t know how to get down comes from Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human. She refers to Karen Pryor’s theory that, for cats, climbing up a tree comes naturally. They don’t have to learn to do it. Climbing up comes naturally because the claws are curved backwards providing grip. To climb down, a cat has to turn around and shimmy down backwards to get grip from her claws. Karen believes that cats need to learn to do this. The learning process would be watching mother cat and/or relatives do it. The theory is that…
“most pet cats are taken away from their mother before she can teach them.”
Temple Grandin thinks Karen is correct on this. In support, she cites barn cats who apparently never have trouble getting down from trees because the cat family stick together in a natural way allowing kittens to learn.
My comment on this theory: 90% of pet cats can climb down trees. The percentage is probably higher. It is a guesstimate. If I am correct then it is wrong to say that a lack of learning is the cause of the difficulty. If it is true that most cats are not trained by mother cat but nearly all of these cats can climb down a tree, the theory is flawed. It is just the odd one who gets stuck up the tree.
Secondly, my personal experience indicates that climbing down a tree comes as naturally to a domestic cat as climbing up a tree. Sometimes cats climb down head first by racing down while using branches to put a brake on the descent, at intervals. My cat could do this and no one taught her. It was in her genes.
My conclusion on the lack of training theory is that it may apply sometimes but that it is not the main reason why some cats don’t climb down trees they have climbed.
This is a comment I added as an after thought:
My theory is that if nature gave them the ability to climb trees nature would also give them the ability to climb down. One without the other does not make sense.
They Don’t Want To Climb Down
I realize that when cats get “stuck” up a tree they sometimes stay up for days. We are told that sometimes placing a favorite food at the bottom of the tree entices them down or someone goes up and grabs them. However, the impression I get is that if a cat is left alone up a tree he will come down of his own accord in due course. People can’t wait for this to happen.
The problem is that people cannot stand by and watch a cat up a tree for days without intervening. This is because it looks unnatural to humans. We put ourselves in the cat’s shoes. The human becomes anxious, not the cat. For a cat, it is probably not a problem to remain up a tree for several days. In respect of food, it is not a problem. Cats are famous for requiring little water and can do without food for a long time. There are numerous cases of cats surviving in ship containers for weeks licking condensation from the walls.
Why should a cat want to stay up a tree for days? On some occasions it might be because the cat’s world inside a home is not vertical enough. When she gets out she wants to exercise her vertical skills and desires. Cats are very vertically minded. There are a number of wild cat species who are considered “arboreal” – they live in trees and do their hunting in trees, a bit like monkeys. Even ground dwelling wild cats are extremely competent tree climbers at worst.
Cats are able to remain more or less static in a small place. Being confined to a small area looking down from a good height, even in cold weather, is not a huge problem for a cat. She may like it. It takes her up, to a secure place.
Anxiety and Uncertainty
If a cat has little chance to express tree climbing desires and then does so she may feel anxious once she has reached a considerable height up the tree. Under these circumstances it is not a question of a lack of skill in getting down but a reluctance do it due to anxiety and uncertainty. This is a matter of a lack of practice of innate skills that the cat is born with, causing anxiety or uncertainty.
Alright. I have had my say on this subject. No doubt there are other reasons and also a combination of the above might be the reason why the odd cat gets stuck up a tree.