There are a ton of myths and legends surrounding cats, from cats having nine lives to black cats being unlucky. While common sense tells us (for the most part) that these are not true, what about the commonly touted “fact” that cats always land on their feet?
Is there any scientific basis for this?
The Cat Righting Reflex:
Cats have an incredibly flexible backbone and no functional clavicle (collarbone), and this allows them an innate ability to orient themselves in the air and land on their feet, known as the “righting reflex”. A cat will orient itself either visually or with the inner ear while in the air, bend in the middle of their body so their front rotates on a different axis from its rear half, tuck its front legs, and extend its back legs to reduce inertia. Finally, they will extend their front legs and tuck their rear legs to land upright.
Additionally, their relatively small size, light bone structure, and thick fur help to decrease their falling speed. Cats will also spread out their body to further reduce drag and have muscular legs that help them absorb impact, all of which help to give them time to orient themselves in the air and land on their feet safely.
Excited Cats in-house veterinarian Dr. Lorna Whittemore (BVMS) explains this reflex further: “The physical abilities of cats are remarkable, and the righting reflex is evidence of this. A cat’s shoulder blades are only attached to the chest wall via musculature, which means that they have a large range of movement in the front limbs. This also helps with shock absorption when landing from a height.”
Will Cats Always Land on Their Feet?
It’s no surprise that people believe that cats have nine lives since there have been numerous reports of cats falling from dizzying heights not only to survive but walk away relatively unscathed. In one case, a cat fell a whopping 32 stories out of a New York City apartment window—and survived! The cat was treated for a chipped tooth and mild lung puncture and sent home only two days later.
In a study from the 1980s, New York City veterinarians analyzed 132 cases of cats falling from buildings as high as 32 stories, and 90% survived (39% required emergency care, however). Seventeen of the cats were put to sleep by their owners (in most cases, not due to serious injuries, but because the owners said they could not afford medical treatment). Of the other 115, eight died from shock and chest injuries.
With all that said, there are various factors influencing a cat’s ability to right itself and always land on its feet. Overweight cats, for example, will likely not have the flexibility to right themselves quickly enough, plus they will land with more impact. Also, the height of the fall will have a large part to play in the cat’s success or failure.
Interestingly, cats that fall from greater heights, such as five to seven stories, tend to suffer fewer injuries than those that fall from only a couple. This is because they have more time to right themselves in the air. In the NYC study, cats that fell from heights over seven stories were less likely to die than those that fell from two to six stories.
Cats don’t always nail the landing, however, and while they will almost always land on their feet, it certainly doesn’t mean they won’t be injured in the process.