Folklore suggests that cats have nine lives, but they don’t. Popular wisdom also teaches that cats land on their feet all the time, and they often do. Contrary to common belief, however, that doesn’t mean that cats can survive a fall from any height.
Can Cats Survive a Fall From A Great Height?
Cats have been known to fall from up to 30 feet and get away unscathed; others have suffered serious injuries falling from upper-story windows and balconies. They stand a good chance of surviving a fall in natural circumstances, such as from the branches of a tree.
Do Cats Land On Their Feet?
All cats have evolved to land on their feet. The feline anatomy has additional bones in the tail and spinal cord, including more vertebrae compared to other mammals, along with specially adapted muscles and uniquely flexible shoulder blades. This design enables cats to enjoy what zoologists call the “righting reflex,” i.e., the ability to save themselves by twisting their bodies around to make sure cats land on their feet.
How Do Cats Land on Their Feet?
Here’s a great video explaining how cats survive a fall and how cats land on their feet.
When a cat falls, its nervous system triggers an autonomic response. Within one-tenth of a second after falling, information from the eyes and ears arrives in the brain and starts the “survival sequence.” The head swivels into a position horizontal with the ground. The flexible shoulder blades follow the momentum of the legs to right the front part of the body, and nerve impulses running down the spine cause the rear section to follow. The cat uses its tail as a counterbalance to make sure it remains upright until it hits the ground.
Before landing, the cat arches its back and bends its legs, making the body act like a shock absorber. On impact the cat “bounces back” in a spring action before running a short distance to distribute the remaining energy from the fall. The righting reflex is not perfect, and sometimes even falling a relatively short distance will still injure a cat. Injuries are mostly to the jaw if the head hits the ground.
High-Rise Syndrom in Cats
Urban cats suffer most injuries from falling. City vets call these accidents “high-rise syndrome.” Vets recommend cat owners who live in high-rise apartments not to let their pets out onto the balcony, and to make sure they cover windows with protective mesh. Despite the righting reflex, many urban cats suffer injury or death in falls each year. This may be due in part to negligence or from the misguided belief that cats can fall from any height and survive.