Cats; love them or hate them, there’s no escaping their seemingly improbable nine lives. Part of this stems from the rumour that, no matter what the distance, a falling cat will always land on their feet.
But is this the case? Do cats always land on their feet?
Quite often, yes. This ability to right themselves has got many a cat out of a sticky situation; seemingly uninjured. So how do they do it? How can they land on their feet when many species (people included), can’t?
Before looking at the how, it is important to consider the why. No trait as important as this has come along by chance, at some point it has provided an evolutionary advantage and that is why our cats have it.
Now the domestic cat is unique among many species in that its morphology has changed little from its wildcat ancestors. Unlike dogs which exhibit changes in dental structure, or horses which show limb bone variation, domestic cat skeletons are near impossible to differentiate from the remains of the European or East Asian wildcat (to name just two) from which they are descended. Indeed they are so similar that even today – after nearly 12000 years of domestication – domestic cats can hybridize with wildcats and still produce fertile offspring.
Cat domesticated is believed to coincide with the advent of farming; increasingly large amounts of food being stored naturally attracted rodents and various other pests. Cats were able to prove their worth by being efficient hunters and in return for shelter and probably the odd other treat; a mutually beneficial relationship was formed with people. Crucially, we did not require them to change morphologically in any way for this to take place. No selective breeding took place and their basic form has remained the same.
However these wild / domestic cats still had to primarily fend for themselves. They were at risk from being killed by dogs, wolves, bigger cats and possibly even unfriendly people; and for this reason wildcats are great climbers. If they needed to get out of the way, they needed to do it quick. Being agile was therefore a big advantage. Additionally, it also meant they could access prey that would otherwise have been out of reach. But of course, what goes up, must come down; and not always as smoothly as planned. Being able to land safely after a fall became an important survival advantage and this is where the morphological characteristics now come into play; our domestic moggies have lost none of these characteristics.
Cool adaption number one is the vestibular apparatus located in the inner ear. This is what tells the cat what way is up, important when you are free falling and need to make sure your feet are facing down. This balance system is made up of sensors deep inside the inner ear which transmit signals to the lower area of the brain (the medulla); which in turn tell the muscles of the cat how to correct its position.
Cool adaption number two is the cat’s highly flexible spine. With 30 vertebrae along the back (compared to our measly 24) they also have additional vertebrae in the tail, although this number can vary. In addition, the discs between the vertebrae are more elastic like, allowing a greater range of movement and also to aid suspension when landing.
As a cat falls, the vestibular system alerts the body to correct itself. Cats are able to turn their front and back halves separately, which is pretty amazing when you think they are unable to push against anything mid fall. They start by twisting the front half of their bodies 180 degrees, keeping the forelegs close to the body and counter balancing by stretching the hind limbs out and twisting them fractionally in the other direction. Once the front end of the cat has righted, then the rear legs are righted in the same way, but by reversing the process. At the same time, the cat flexes its back so it is arched to help absorb the impact as it lands. With the backend of the cat weighing more than the front, it is easy for them to over shoot as they twist. However it is believed they use the tail to once again right themselves; providing they have enough time. This ability to turn is known as the ‘righting reflex’.
In addition to arching the back, while cats have a clavicle (or collarbone) this isn’t fused like it is in people. Again this helps to reduce the rigidity of the skeleton, which lessens the shock felt in the skeleton when landing.
Do they hurt themselves though?
While this largely depends on how far the cat falls, normally it is a yes. Survival on the other hand, is a different matter. In 1987 New York City’s Animal Medical Centre conducted a study looking at the recorded injuries from cats falling from buildings (they used data already collected, no kitties were pushed out of windows). What they found was surprising; cats falling from distances greater than 7 stories had a higher chance of survival than cats falling from lower distances. They called this fact, ‘high rise syndrome’.
The scientists conducting this study pointed out several key facts. Firstly, once the right themselves, cats are able to spread their body out; much like flying squirrels do. By increasing their surface area, they are able to reach a terminal velocity (or their maximum downward speed) of 60mph after falling 5 stories. They stop accelerating at this point; meaning height of fall no longer plays a part. It is then believed that once this is reached, cats then crucially relax – which is vital as it minimises injuries when they hit the ground. If they landed tense, the risk of injury would be far higher.
When a cat falls over a shorter distance, they have less chance to right themselves and are not able achieve the relaxed state before they fall. Kitties falling shorter distances therefore have a smaller chance of survival.
Despite this, cats often still suffer from serious injuries when they fall. Although their chances of survival are increased over larger distances, the vast majority of cats in this study had some form of major injury. Cats land feet first with their paws under their chin; so injuries to the jaw and chest are common. Always get your cat checked out if he or she has a fall.
Did you know?
A cat in Boston survived a fall from a 19 storey window in 2012. Sugar was very lucky and didn’t land on anything pointy.
In 2009, a cat in Manhattan survived a fall from a spectacular 26 stories after escaping through a 6 inch gap in the window. He was ironically already named Lucky.
Keep your pet safe
Cats will often launch themselves at birds or flies without a second thought. If you have a house cat and are worried about them making a break for it out the window, use screens to keep them safe. This way they can still get plenty of fresh air without accidentally base jumping without a parachute. I’m sure they will appreciate it!
The Near eastern Origin of cat Domestication, Driscoll et al, 2007, Science Express
The Physics of Somersaulting and Twisting. Cliff Frohlich. Scientific American, 1980.
How does a cat fall on its feet? Donald McDonald, 1960, The New Scientist