Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?

Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?


Cats are legendary for their ability to always land on their feet. Although this is true most of the time, certain factors can prevent a four-footed landing and even seriously injure or worse, kill, your pet. So before you test out this theory yourself by dropping your kitty from any height, especially a small one, consider the evidence of what really happens during and after her fall.

Cat Freeze Frame

The first recorded evidence of cat falls being studied is from 1890, when physicist Etienne-Jules Marey used chronophotography, a technique of taking 12 photographs per second, to study a cat in free-fall. Marey’s experiment showed that cats held upside down by their legs and then dropped from a distance of two feet would rotate their bodies in mid-air to land on their feet. To explain exactly how this happens, an application of some basic principles of physics is required.

Physics of Felines

A Huntsville, Alabama engineer, known only as Destin to fans of his video series Smarter Every Day, broke down the mechanics of a cat’s fall from several feet above the ground. Felines use what’s called an aerial righting reflex by arching their backs as they rotate while simultaneously turning their tail in the opposite direction. Cats’ unusually flexible backbone and lack of a collarbone give them exceptional gymnast-like twisting ability. When falling from a height of 5 feet or more, a terminal velocity of 60 mph is reached in which kitties can relax and flatten themselves out, forming a sort of parachute to prevent further acceleration on the way down to earth.

Exceptions to the Cat Landing on Feet Rule

In certain instances, cats will not only fail to land on their feet but can also become severely injured. James R. Cook, Jr., DVM, PhD, Diplomate, American College of Internal Medicine (Neurology), who practices at Lauderdale Veterinary Specialists, explains that overweight, uncoordinated, or arthritic kitties may move too slowly to right themselves in time when falling from a height of 4 or 5 feet. A study attributed to Fiorella Gambale found that even fit, agile cats don’t have enough time to rotate into a feet-first landing position when dropped from one foot. The height of their fall must be two feet or more to increase the probability of landing on all four feet.

High-Rise Syndrome

Dr. Cook warned that in high-rise syndrome, felines tumbling from heights of more than 24 feet may land on all fours, but their natural shock absorbers can’t accommodate the force of such great velocity. Broken legs, a split lower jaw, and lung contusions are just some of the serious injuries usually sustained from these falls, as well as high occurrences of death. The risk of high-rise syndrome can be reduced by tightly screening in porches and balconies to prevent Fluffy from trying to reach for a bird or squirrel nearby. If your cat is exceptionally strong, invest in small-holed metal grating to prevent her from pushing out the screen.

Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?

Do cats always land on their feet? Yes and no. While 90% of all kitties that fall do survive, there is a 10% chance that she won’t. A screened-in balcony can increase her survival odds to 100%. And odds don’t get much better than that.


Image via Flickr user Paul Quinn

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