Before You Call

Thanks to Lisa J. Lehr, author, and cat lover for allowing me to re-post excerpts from her article below.  The pictures are from rescues I have done.
Cats do get stuck in trees.  If yours is, here’s what to do:

“Ever see a cat skeleton in a tree?”  This sarcastic question is usually intended to “prove” that cats never get stuck in trees. When they feel like coming down, they will, goes this misguided thinking. The premise of the lame joke, however, is utter nonsense. Cats do get stuck in trees. They do die. Here’s why, and what to do if your cat (or a cat you know) ever gets stuck in a tree.

Trucker, Patrick's first rescuee.
A cat usually climbs a tree for one of two or three reasons:
  1. she’s chasing something (like a squirrel), 
  2. she’s running away from something (like a dog), 
  3. or perhaps she just wants to see what’s up there. 
Okay, so Kitty is way-high-up in a tree, the danger (or the fun or the mystery) is gone, and it’s time to come down. Why doesn’t she come down on her own?

A cat’s claws are designed for climbing up. A cat is not a squirrel; squirrels can climb up, down, and sideways, always headfirst, no problem. But a cat must climb with her head up to avoid falling, and once she’s up, the only way down is to back down. The margay, or tree ocelot, a rare cat found in the rainforests of Mexico, Central America, and South America, is the only cat that can climb down a tree headfirst. 

Once she’s close enough to the ground, she’ll turn around and jump down; the biggest challenge is a tree that has no low branches, like a pine tree. By the time the immediate danger or curiosity has passed, Kitty has used her burst of adrenaline and does not have enough energy left for the time-consuming, frightening task of descent. This is especially true of an indoor cat with little or no climbing experience.

[Here is a video, and another video, showing what a cat must do to climb down a tree.]

The good news is, cats have been known to survive over a week in a tree and have sustained falls of over a hundred feet without serious injury. The bad news is, a panicked cat will continue to go…up. Worse, a cat may eventually become too weak to climb down, and after a point, even if rescued, may die later of starvation, dehydration, or exposure.

We don’t see cat skeletons in trees because of a well-known law of nature called gravity: Kitty becomes too weak to hold on, lets go, and falls.

What do you do?

Patrick getting close to Tangerine, a feral rescue.
If you can’t manage the rescue yourself, wait no more than a couple days. That’s about the longest it will take Kitty to decide to come down if she can. Call your cat. If it doesn’t encourage her to come down, it will at least let her know she’s not forgotten. Keep dogs and other unnecessary commotion away. Try tempting her with food.

If your cat does not meow, it means one of two things: she’s too weak to do so (bad) or she doesn’t feel she is in trouble (good). Unfortunately, you can’t tell which it is.

Get help sooner rather than later if:

  • It’s a kitten. Kittens do not have the weight or strength to hang on.
  • It’s an indoor cat. She’s not used to being exposed, and she has no climbing skills.
  • She’s declawed. A declawed cat has virtually no chance of climbing down without help.
  • The cat has been up there for more than two days. After this, her chance of getting down on her own declines sharply, especially considering she’s becoming weaker as time passes.
  • Wet, cold, or windy weather is forecast.
  • An electrical storm is forecast. If you do decide to call someone, he may decline to come, out of concern for his own safety.
  • She’s injured or literally stuck—wedged or (worse) impaled.
  • The stranded kitty’s plight is causing stress to you or another family member.
  • There’s a reasonable fear of attack by wild animals.
  • Her meowing is bothering someone. You don’t want a grouchy, cat-hating neighbor to shoot your cat down.
Who’re you gonna call?

Surprise! Not the fire department. Contrary to folk tradition, most fire departments no longer do cat rescues. Understandably, they do not want to commit their resources to animal rescues when a human rescue may be at stake.

First try looking on for an experienced cat rescuer in your area.  If your area doesn't have a cat rescuer listed your best bet is a professional tree service. Try doing a web search for "arborists" or "tree care companies" in your city.


Text © Lisa J. Lehr October 2012