Ever Wondered How Cats Land on Their Feet?

The story goes that in a fall, cats can almost always right themselves and land on their feet. But don't go throwing your cat out of a window just to witness this behavior because it's not true that all cats land on their feet all the time or that they always walk away unscathed. If they fall more than one or two floors, they may sustain severe or even fatal injuries.

Cat fallingThe risk of injury increases as the height increases. The main reason for this is that, while cats can usually right themselves at small and great heights, their feet and legs are able to cushion the impact only at shorter heights.

The number of cats who become injured from falling is increasing, partially because of the large number of multi-story apartment buildings. Cats who are injured during falls are often said to have 'high rise syndrome.'

The Righting Reflex

The uniqueness of the cat's skeleton is one of the reasons cats land on their feet and can right themselves so quickly. Cats do not have a collarbone, and the bones in their backbone have more mobility than in many other animals. For these reasons, cats have free movement of their front legs and they can easily bend and rotate their bodies. This allows them to land feet first. Another component is the vestibular apparatus, which is responsible for their great balance. This tiny fluid-filled organ is located deep in a cat's inner ear and is composed of small chambers and canals lined with millions of sensitive hairs and filled with fluid and tiny floating crystals.

Cat Righting Reflex

As a cat falls, or even moves, the vestibular apparatus becomes active, giving readings on the body's position and helping to register which way is up. Their feet and legs can cushion the impact. This righting reflex begins to appear at 3-4 weeks of age, and is perfected at 7 weeks.

Consequences of a Fall

If cats fall a larger distance such as two or more floors, even though they can right themselves, their legs and feet can no longer absorb all of the shock. Their heads may hit the ground and they often bruise their chin and may fracture some teeth. Falls of four or more floors cause the cat to hit the ground at maximum velocity and thus acquire a multitude of injuries including a ruptured diaphragm, torn liver, and fractured bones.

Interestingly, two veterinarians did a study (examining 132 cases of cats that had fallen out of high-rise windows) and found that in falls of seven stories or less, the chance of survival was indeed greater with the shorter distances. However, with falls greater than seven stories, the number of injuries actually declined when compared to falls at seven stories. So, beyond seven stories, the farther the fall, the better the chance of survival! They found that the reason for this was that after five stories or so, cats reach terminal velocity. The velocity or speed of a falling body does not increase forever because the rate of increase in speed is interrupted by air resistance. A skydiver reaches a terminal velocity of around 130 to 140 mph after about 30 seconds of free-falling. Cats reach terminal velocity much sooner at about 60 mph.
Before reaching terminal velocity, cats have their muscles tensed and are rigid and flexed and prepared for landing, making them more prone to injury due to the impact. Once they've reached terminal velocity, however, they relax and spread themselves out much like a flying squirrel, allowing the impact to be absorbed by a larger surface area and therefore resulting in fewer injuries.

Taking Precautions

There are certainly instances of cats falling only a short distance and acquiring severe injuries. For the safety of your cat, always be sure upstairs windows are screened. Balconies and upstairs porches should be off-limits unless screened or cats are restricted from the edges and railings with the use of a harness and leash, (be sure the leash is short enough to prevent the cat from jumping on the railing, or reaching the edge of the porch.)

It’s true, your cat may be able to survive a fall - but, then again, he might not. You never know … and prevention is better than a visit to the veterinarian’s office.

But, if the worst should happen and your beloved companion is injured, a trip to the vet will be necessary in order to have him/her treated for any injuries. Depending on the how bad those are, you could be facing a large vet bill. So why not do the sensible thing and take out some pet insurance. Insurance will also cover your cat for surgeries due to disease or other injuries sustained through accident. And it will give you some peace of mind.

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