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Cat stuck in tree. Zimmerman photo  

What goes up does not always come down by itself. What to do when a cat is stuck in a tree. More....

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- by Bet Zimmerman

Last weekend, everyone in Woodstock was enjoying the balmy weather.  That is, everyone except Stanley the Cat.  He was crying incessantly, since he was stuck in a tree 25 feet off the ground.

  • Cat Rescue: Stuck
  • Cat Rescue: Pitiful crying
  • Cat Rescue: Keith tries to persuade Stanley to jump into  his waiting arms
  • Cat Rescue: Hopeful cat
  • Cat Rescue: The descent
  • Cat Rescue: Closer to earth
  • Cat Rescue: Stanley takes off like a rocket
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The daring rescue. Photos by Bet Zimmerman

Stanley didn't belong to Becky, but the tree did.  After listening all morning to his pathetic pleas for help, Becky figured Stanley probably wasn't coming down on his own.  She decided to take action. 

Becky did not want to call emergency responders, since she knew police and volunteer fire departments have a limited workforce and need to be on the ready to respond to human emergencies.  So she did some homework on the Internet, and decided the first step was to contact the neighbor with the longest ladder - my husband, Doug.  Meanwhile, Becky’s husband Keith and neighbor Joe tried in vain to persuade Stanley to jump. 

Doug brought over his 28 foot ladder and suggested we think things over first.  One person commented that a 32 might be better. A discussion ensured about who would have to make precarious ascent.  Since the tree was on Keith’s property, and he had the best life insurance policy, he was elected to take charge of Operation Rescue.  

The tree did not offer much support, since it lacked lower branches and was only about a foot in diameter.  While Doug and Joe tried to hold the ladder steady, Keith the Brave (clad in claw-resistant gloves and safety glasses) slowly made his way to the frightened feline.  (Keith suggested that he would sound even more brave if I claimed the cat was 75 feet up.)

At the top, Keith was convinced to firmly grab the cat by the nape of its neck.  But as Keith started his descent, Stanley had a change of heart and latched onto the tree trunk.  With one hand gripping the ladder, Keith used his free hand to peel the scaredy-cat off the bark.  Then with the cat securely tucked under his arm, he descended slowly.  The instant they hit the ground, the ungrateful Stanley took off like a rocket.

Most people say that if you have a cat stuck in a tree, the best thing to do is wait.  Almost all cats will figure out how to get down within a day or so.  However, what goes up does not always come down by itself.  Cats have been known to be stuck in trees for 7-10 days, during which they may become dehydrated and very stressed.  One cat remained in a tree for 21 days before being rescued. 

Not every cat can figure out how to descend from a tree – especially kittens.  A cats’ claws are curved.  They are not designed to descend headfirst, nor is this a natural movement for a cat.  Declawed cats can sometimes climb trees by pushing themselves up, but may not be able to get down.

While it may (or may not) be true that no one has ever found a cat skeleton in a tree, that may be because they eventually died and fell to the ground.  Also, contrary to popular belief, not all cats survive a fall. Those that do may sustain injuries from what is called “high rise syndrome.” Of 132 cats brought to New York's Animal Medical Center after accidental falls, ten percent died.  Another two-thirds required treatment, and half of that number required lifesaving care.  The number that died on impact is unknown.

If you do find a cat stuck in a tree, first try to lure it down with an open can of wet cat food.  Leave the food at the base of the tree.  One clever couple attached a rope to a large mesh laundry basket with food in the bottom.  After weighting the rope with a rock, they swing the rope over a branch near the cat and then raised the basket up.  The cat jumped in the basket and started eating on the way down.

If you do go with the ladder method, be sure to do so safely – otherwise you risk serious injury or even death.   If the cat is too high, or the situation is unsafe, you really should contact a professional arborist or other person who has the equipment and experience to rescue cats – see www.catinatreerescue.com for a state-by-state listing.  (Yes,  there is a website on almost every topic imaginable.)

If you can secure the ladder to a solid object, climb it slowly while speaking in a soothing tone to the cat.  Do not shout at the cat (or to the crowd below), as that may freak the cat out further and convince it to move even higher.  Get scary things like dogs (which may have caused the ascent in the first place) out of the area.  Once you get near it, shaking a small box of cat treats may coax the cat over to you.  Grasp the cat firmly by the scruff of its neck – this is how mother cats carry their kittens.  Then hold it closely and firmly to you as you descend.   Some pro cat rescuers  put on a tight fitting glove (since a frightened cat is apt to scratch or bite) and then drape a pillow case or laundry bag up their arm. Once they have the cat by the nape of the neck, they drop the cat in the bag, tie it up and descend.

Of course, the best way to keep a cat from getting stuck in a tree (or hit by a car) is to keep it indoors. In addition to not killing wildlife, indoor cats are healthier and live a lot longer.


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Originally published in the Villager newspapers on November 20, 2009