Why Some Cats Don’t Climb Down Trees

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.

I ain't stuck; just looking down and enjoying myself. Photo by jonas.lowgren
I ain’t stuck; just looking down and enjoying myself. Photo by jonas.lowgren
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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.

11 thoughts on “Why Some Cats Don’t Climb Down Trees”

  1. The other day Monty spent nearly 30 minutes up in a tree. It’s snowy out there, so he likes it up there, out of the snow. I wasn’t worried about him. I knew he was having a good time. Maybe sometimes people react too soon, thinking the cat can’t get down when really he is just enjoying himself. My sister and I used to climb a huge pine tree in the woods near our house. We would literally be sitting up in that tree for hours on end. If human children can stay in a tree for hours, cats certainly can, because they are more comfortable up there than humans ever could be.

    • Nice point Ruth. I am pleased you see the point I am making. I do believe that people are too eager to get cats down. Not always, but sometimes. I believe that all cats would get down, in due course, on their own, if left to do it.

  2. If they could just stick to their instinct they would get back down fine but it looks like sometimes they look down from high up for the first time and get a bit of a shock.

    • Yes, I agree, lack of familiarity and practice. The ability is there. 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.

      • The ability is definitely there. From observing our cats, it is clear that they instinctively know both how to climb up *and* down trees. It’s just that in Bobbie’s case, her deep anxiety interferes with doing what she already knows how to do.

  3. Cats can come down trees if they choose to that’s for sure.
    I had a neighbour years ago whose cat went up high and she was frantic after a few hours and rang the fire brigade,they arrived only to see the cat zoom down and take off at the sight of them lol
    Lucky they saw the funny side.
    I don’t think fire brigades would come out now without charging if they’d even come at all.

  4. Our cat Robin has always climbed up and down trees without the slightest fear or hesitation. Our Bobbie, on the other hand, is very nervous by nature. She climbs trees only occasionally, and then only hesitatingly. She has never attempted to climb higher than around 12 feet (4 meters). Once she reaches that height, she gets scared and freezes. After a while of being stranded up there, she loudly meows desperate cries for help. Then we have to get out the ladder and rescue her, as she is obviously too scared to attempt to come down on her own.

    • Looks like the reason is anxiety. I think this stems from a lack of practice. She has the drive and ability built in from birth, but not the practice.

      Thanks for sharing Howard. Interesting.

  5. Monty has definitely had a learning curve when it comes to getting down from trees. But he is getting better at it and will now climb down backwards quite consistently. I don’t think cats, or at least my cat, has an instinct which tells him to climb down backwards. He was quite stubborn about it for a long time wanting to either jump or race down the tree head first. He observed many squirrels climbing down trees, but since I’ve had him, no cats doing this. He seemed quite irritated that he couldn’t perch head first down a tree like the squirrels can. Now he seems more content to use his claws in the proper direction. This could be due to deep snow cover. Jumping onto the snow would shove snow between his toes and he hates that. When the snow melts he may be back to racing down head first and jumping. I try to discourage the jumping since he could develop arthritis later in life from too much jumping down from great heights. Sometimes I bend over beneath the tree and Monty jumps onto my back and then onto the ground. We may be back to that when the snow is gone.

  6. I don’t think mother cats teach their kittens how to come back down trees, I think it’s their natural instinct which has been part of them since cats lived wild.
    Some kittens don’t have access to trees, so how could their mother teach them? Our Jozef’s feline family didn’t at the place he was born, yet at 10 months old he went 30 foot up a tree here and after he was sure we had all seen and admired his skill and were suitably worried as to how we’d get him down, he came easily back down himself.
    I really think that ‘cat experts’ can never know all about cats, they can only assume how a lot of their habits came about, no one can know all about a cat apart from the cat him/herself and I for one love their mystery!


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