How Do Cats Survive Falls?

Cats are well known for having nine lives and being able to survive falls from great heights. In fact, studies have shown that cats can routinely survive falls from heights up to 32 stories with little injury. This seems counterintuitive given that cats are relatively small animals with heights around 1-2 feet tall. However, cats have several remarkable evolutionary adaptations that enable them to right themselves in the air and withstand the impact of landing after a fall from height. Their ability to survive falls far greater than their body size is a unique feat of feline agility and physiology.

Anatomy

Cats have lightweight, flexible bodies that help them survive falls. Their bone structure is flexible enough to absorb impact. Cats’ bodies are approximately 60% to 90% muscle, with their muscles concentrated in the hind legs (1). This muscular build allows them to absorb shocks. Cats also have a large surface area in proportion to their weight, thanks to their legs and paws which helps in acting as shock absorbers (2). When cats fall, their legs splay out, increasing drag and slowing the fall.

(1) https://medium.com/@wingsbirdpro/how-cats-survive-when-they-fall-from-heights-unveiling-the-feline-parachute-876af8358542

(2) https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17492802

Righting Reflex

Cats have an innate ability called the righting reflex that allows them to orient themselves mid-air and land on their feet when falling. This reflex engages when cats fall from high places and begin rotating head over heels. According to the Wikipedia article on the cat righting reflex, the righting reflex starts to appear around 3-4 weeks of age in kittens.

As cats fall, sensors in their inner ear detect that they are no longer upright. This triggers their spine to twist and their legs to splay out until their feet are underneath them and pointed towards the ground. Cats can accomplish this feat in under a second thanks to their flexible backbone and low body weight. Their tail is also essential for balance and acts as a counterweight to keep their head upwards (Rover).

This remarkable reflex allows cats to land upright and on their feet from falls, no matter their starting orientation. It is a key reason why cats can often survive high falls uninjured.

Relaxed State

Cats have an innate ability to relax and stay calm during free-falling. As they accelerate downwards through the air, most cats will enter a relaxed state after reaching their terminal velocity, usually after falling about 5-7 stories (Source 1). This relaxed state allows the impact to be distributed across their body when they eventually hit the ground.

Because cats don’t panic or tense up as they fall, their bodies remain loose and supple. Their relaxed muscles and connective tissues act as shock absorbers when the cat makes impact with the ground. By staying relaxed, the cat avoids injuries that could be caused by rigid, tense muscles. The relaxation response may be an evolved instinct that protects cats from severe harm when falling from heights.

Limb Splaying

Cats have an innate ability called limb splaying that helps them survive falls from heights. When cats fall, they instinctively spread out their legs which increases their body’s surface area and drag. This slowing of the descent gives cats the chance to right themselves properly and land on their feet.

According to cats.com, cats splay and extend their legs when falling which helps absorb the impact of the landing. The limbs act as shock absorbers. Splaying allows cats to increase their drag and decrease their terminal velocity.

Research from WebMD explains that when cats fall, they flip their bodies over to land on their feet. During this process, they splay their legs slightly to better absorb the impact of the fall.

Terminal Velocity

Cats reach terminal velocity, which is their maximum falling speed, at around 60 miles per hour or a five story drop, according to the ModKat article on cats surviving falls. Humans, on the other hand, don’t reach terminal velocity until around 120 miles per hour. This lower terminal velocity for cats means their falls are less dangerous compared to humans falling from the same height.

Once terminal velocity is reached, the cat’s drag equals its weight and it will stop accelerating. So even if it falls from a greater height above 5 stories, the cat’s speed will max out at 60 miles per hour. The BBC article confirms cats can reach a terminal velocity of around 60 mph with limbs extended.

Injuries

Despite the high survival rate, cats can still sustain severe injuries from high-rise falls. According to the 1987 study of 132 cats brought to a New York City veterinary clinic after falls, only 37% of the cats were free of injury. The most common injuries are to the chest and lungs. Lung contusions and patterns of diffuse alveolar damage are prevalent, as rapid deceleration puts pressure on the lungs and forces air out (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-rise_syndrome). Other common injuries include fractured jaws, fractured limbs, traumatic brain injury, and ruptured aortas. However, the overall distribution and severity of injuries appears to be random, with no correlation between fall height and injury severity. While higher falls may reach terminal velocity, spontaneous lung collapse seems to protect cats from the impacts of very high falls over seven stories (https://www.wired.com/story/how-can-a-cat-survive-a-high-rise-fall-physics/).

Fall Factors

Several factors affect whether a cat will survive a fall and avoid injury, including the height of the fall, the landing surface, and the cat’s body position.

Height plays a major role, as cats reach terminal velocity after falling about 5 stories. So paradoxically, falls from higher buildings can lead to less severe injuries in cats since they reach max velocity that their bodies can handle (Why Do Cats Survive High Falls? Exploring the Science Behind Feline Resilience). Shorter falls don’t give them time to orient themselves properly.

The landing surface also matters – softer surfaces like bushes or grass are more likely to minimize impact injuries than hard surfaces. Landing flat on solid ground is more dangerous than a sloped or irregular surface that distributes impact.

A cat’s body position is crucial on descent. Cats instinctively spread out and arch their backs to increase drag and slow the fall. Relaxed legs bent and ready to absorb impact greatly improves odds of surviving (How Can a Cat Survive a High-Rise Fall? Physics!).

Prevention

The most effective way to prevent high-rise syndrome in cats is to keep them indoors and restrict access to areas where they could fall from heights. For cat owners who allow outdoor access, installing screens on windows and enclosing balconies can help prevent falls. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), “screens on windows should be tightly fitted and balcony railing gaps should be narrower than the width of your cat’s head” (https://www.aspcapetinsurance.com/resources/high-rise-syndrome-in-cats/). Limiting a cat’s roaming to supervised playtime or using a cat leash and harness when outside can also reduce high-rise syndrome risk.

In addition to environmental precautions, ASPCA recommends keeping cats mentally stimulated indoors with play sessions, puzzle toys and scratching posts to prevent boredom or frustration that could cause a cat to attempt to bolt outside (https://www.aspcapetinsurance.com/resources/high-rise-syndrome-in-cats/). Being attentive to a cat’s body language and preventing situations that create anxiety can also help curb risky outdoor escapes.

Notable Examples

Cats have been known to survive incredible falls that far exceed the average cat’s terminal velocity of 60 mph. Here are some stories of cats surviving extreme heights:

In 1932, a cat fell from the 46th floor of the New York Times building, a height of over 500 feet, and walked away unharmed except for a chipped tooth (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17492802).

In 2009, a cat nicknamed “High-Rise Kitty” fell 26 floors from an apartment building in Boston and survived with minor injuries (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17492802). Vets believed the awning she landed on helped break her fall.

In 1987, a cat named Sabrina fell 32 stories from a New York apartment building onto concrete. Amazingly, she only suffered a chipped tooth and a minor lung injury and made a full recovery (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17492802).

Stories like these demonstrate that cats can withstand falls from heights over 10 times their terminal velocity due to their unique physical adaptations for landing on their feet.

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