Domestic cats can’t go into reverse which is why they struggle to get down trees

Cats, like humans, don’t naturally go into reverse. They don’t like walking backwards. They may do so for a short distance to avoid something, a hostile object or creature, but beyond that they aren’t very good at it.

Cat rescued from tree by Dan Kraus
Cat rescued from tree by Dan Kraus. Photo by Dan.
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We know that cat’s claws point backwards. They point towards the rear of the animal when extended. This is quite natural. It allows the cat to run more surely. It allows the cat to scratch by pulling backwards or downwards and most importantly it allows the cat to climb upwards.

In the home, domestic cats will jump onto objects and then jump off. There is no need to climb down from these objects. However, outside it is very natural for a cat to climb a tree. Beyond about 10 to 15 feet they can’t jump down by turning and jumping because it’s too high.

At about 30 feet above the ground, it is obviously impossible to jump down although sometimes cats do jump off and fly down, normally surviving quite nicely. And some do race down head first but this is exceptional. However, often we see cats stuck in trees and a great deal of effort is expended in getting them down.

The domestic cat has a mental block about going backwards; in reverse. If he or she was much more mentally adept at going backwards he would simply shimmy back down the tree using his claws to grasp the tree trunk. That’s the way cats get down trees. Towards the bottom of the tree they turn and jump the last eight to ten feet.

Tame Margay Cat
Tame Margay Cat. Photo by Mark Low!

Once a cat has got it into his mind that he can go backwards he will shimmy down as described but far too many are unable to grasp this concept.

This cat did work it out and went down backwards with great success:

The Margay

There is, surprisingly, one cat amongst all wild cat species who is uniquely designed by nature to live and hunt in trees and thereby to climb down them with ease. This cat is the diminutive margay whose feet can rotate inwards through 180° allowing the claws to point other than backwards. This anatomical feature allows them to grip a branch equally well with hind and forepaws. They have soft mobile toes too. This cat is a highly adept tree climber and has monkey-like, acrobatic abilities.

Wouldn’t it have been interesting if the margay had been domesticated rather than the Near Eastern wildcat? We’d have had domestic cats who would never get stuck up trees.

The domestic cat has a problem with going backwards and this, in my view, is the source of the reason why they find themselves stuck in trees much to the chagrin and distress of their owners and firefighters.

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1 thought on “Domestic cats can’t go into reverse which is why they struggle to get down trees”

  1. My feral colony cats could go in reverse. They were amazing to watch. They’d climb straight up a pole to the covering on the picnic table then they’d back down until they were close enough to turn around and jump to the table

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