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There are a number of movies and cartoons that humorously have a hero saving the day by rescuing a cat from a tree (the first one that pops into my mind is in the movie The Incredibles). There are a TON of these kinds of scenes documented here at tvtropes.

Do cats really get stuck in trees often enough for it to be used so much in movies?

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    A think this leads to a follow on question: Do cats get stuck in trees and can't get down without human help? I can recall quite a few occasions with the neighborhood gathering to rescue a treed cat to no avail. But it always turned out that once everyone left, particularly if it was overnight, the cat always found its own way down. I've even seen this happen with a cat stuck on a 3 story house roof. Nobody could figure out how to get it down, but an hour later it figured it out all on its own once the people disappeared. – Dunk May 1 '12 at 22:05
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    @Dunk - Indeed, watching one of my cats get down from a high place is interesting. It will size up every parameter, and if there's even the slightest chance something (or someone) is in the way of a sucessful jump the cat will wait it out almost indefinately until it is sure it can make the jump without hurting itself. Cats are pompus arseholes, but they're smart :) – Jamiec May 2 '12 at 7:13
  • My guess is it's just humans that consider them stranded after a certain duration of meowing. Eventually they'll face their fear and jump out of the tree. Cecil does suggest (depending on what they land on) cats have a non terminal falling velocity straightdope.com/columns/read/1143/… – Mikey Mouse Aug 12 '16 at 14:24
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The answer is yes, that cats do get stuck in trees and the reason they can't get themselves down is well established. More on that in a bit.

As to whether it happens often enough to warrent such a strong featuring in the public psyche is a subjective question and one which is difficult to answer. But the concrete "Does it happen at all" is much easier; a Freedom of Information Request was submitted to North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service enquiring How many cats that were stuck up trees, did you rescue in 2010 and the answer (as you'll see in the link above) was Seven.

Elsewhere, there has been a case of firemen having to fell a tree to rescue a stranded cat in Japan and a Tiger stuck in a tree at a zoo.

Most cats (Including most big cats, domestic cats) climb trees very easily due to the shape of their claws allowing them to scale upwards very easily. However to get down they usually jump from the lowest point they can reach, edge down backwards, or scamper down forwards.

Cats from the Genus Panthera and Leopardus are generally much better climbers and often live in trees, with some species (eg, the Margay) able to rotate their claws:

When descending a tree trunk, the margay can go down headfirst, but does not have to scamper down quickly like the majority of cat species must. The long claws, broad feet and nimble toes, plus the fact that a margay has the ability to rotate its feet 180 degrees to an outward position, make this possible. The margay is also agile enough to grab a branch with its long claws to prevent a serious fall when it does make a mistake while in the tops of trees

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  • I almost burst out laughing at work after reading that someone actually submitted a Freedom of Information Request about this. – inappropriateCode Aug 15 '16 at 17:54
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In some cases, yes

However, to make sure that the cat is not at risk please contact the RSPCA 24-hour cruelty and advice line immediately if:

  • it is a kitten or young cat that is up a tree;

[...]

  • the cat appears to be sick or injured in some way.

RSPCA FAQ page

So young or sick specimen do get stuck.

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