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Danger, Cats Falling! (They Don’t Always Land On All Fours!)

It’s a cat cliché that falling felines always land on their feet, as if some invisible landing gear lets them touch down effortlessly. With the temptation of open windows or balconies, many cats may find themselves taking an unexpected tumble. Despite the unique physics lesson embodied by cats in flight, frame-by-frame photos and slow-motion video can also show the stark truth: cats do have special aerodynamic skills, but they do not all land without suffering harm.

Safety First  

Be certain your windows are properly screened, with either double screens or specially designed ‘cat screens.’  Test those screens too: a cat intent on a close-up of a bird can push out a screen. Secure your cat in an inner room if you’re sunning on the balcony. Science and technology tell us how cats fall and are often able to land on their feet—but why tempt fate? Older cats, far less agile, do not always survive falls, and cats of any age and size sustain injuries, some fatal.

The Height Factor

Every summer, veterinarians report an uptick in the number of cats they treat for broken legs or other injuries of cats who’ve fallen. They report that the cats who survive falls from greater heights, such as high-rise apartments, suffered less-severe injuries than those falling just a few stories down—because the longer drop gave the cat’s bodies more time to right themselves for landing.

Here’s what happens: a falling cat’s body reflexively begins to correct its course, so by time solid ground is near, his feet are positioned to hit first. But the height of his fall decides how well or how badly his legs can absorb that landing shock.

From the second his flight starts, a cat’s body’s balance shifts. Thanks to his inner ear’s vestibular system, his body knows where it is in relation to the ground, and whether it’s upside down. His eyes and ears direct his head to rotate, facing the ‘up’ side, followed by an arched back that gets his spine into position. Cats’ flexible backbones and extra vertebrae—32 instead of the 24 that we have—add to their supple physiques. Front and rear paws go underneath, the forefeet near his face to cushion it from that jolting impact. Feline leg joints act like shock absorbers, bearing body weight’s impact against that hard ground. Like parachutes, falling cats’ bodies spread and relax as they get accustomed to the motion, readying for landing.

How to Prevent Disaster

Cats don’t learn aerodynamic behavior; it’s instinctive, from the time they’re about six or eight weeks old. But they need your compassionate vigilance to prevent potential disaster. Remind kids to treat cats gently, protectively, and if they exhibit curiosity about Kitty’s ability to ‘fly,’ show them the slow motion video demonstrations and explain that no one should ever ‘try this at home.’

Your cat’s makeup is a marvel, with no need to test his survival skills. Keeping Kitty safely grounded means one less feline heartbreak this summer.

Image: bright via Shutterstock

Kathy Blumenstock

Kathy Blumenstock

Kathy Blumenstock has been passionate about animals since childhood, when she had dreams of becoming a veterinarian - caring for injured animals that showed up in her family backyard - or a jockey (fueled by reading every book about horses in the library). She's been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, Entertainment Tonight and TV Week.

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