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by Jane Matheys

I have always been fascinated by cats, including cat health, behavior, their agility and athleticism, and of course their amazing ability to usually land on their feet. Whether they’re overshooting windowsills on a quest for birds or miscalculating fences as they run from barking dogs, they appear to regain perfect balance without much effort.

The question of how cats do this has baffled scientists for a very long time. In 1890, famous French scientist Etienne Jules Marey dropped a cat and filmed it using the first high speed camera which he invented. Yes, you can find the (very short) clip on YouTube! This offered the first glimpse into understanding this unique phenomenon.

Why Cats Land on Their Feet
A cat’s innate ability to orient itself as it falls in order to land on its feet is called the “righting reflex”. This reflex begins to appear in kittens at 3-4 weeks of age, and is perfected at 7 weeks. The biomechanics of the reflex involve concepts of physics such as rotational motion, moment of inertia and the conservation of angular momentum. Physics was not my strong point in college, but I’ll try to simplify the explanation for you!

A cat begins to shift his balance from the second the flight begins. Cats have super sensitive sense organs which determine which side should be up. Much how like a skater controls her rate of spin by pulling in or extending her arms, the cat first tucks in his front legs and extends the rear legs, then reverses the procedure, extending his front legs and tucking in his rear legs.

Simply put, cats turn over in mid air by twisting around the middle and rotating the front and back halves separately. This feat is also due in part to their unique skeletal structure. Cats have a very flexible backbone. They have 30 vertebrae, which contributes to their suppleness (humans have just 24). In addition, cats have a nonfunctional clavicle (collarbone) which increases their flexibility because it does not connect to the shoulder joint like in people. Interestingly, tails are insignificant in free fall. Even cats without tails like the Manx can still navigate a fall.

Beyond their amazing aerial spins, cats also have what could be called a built-in parachute. Their small size, light bone structure and thick fur allow them to slow their velocity by spreading out and becoming their own parachute, much like the maneuver that flying squirrels do in mid-air.

Using their righting reflex, cats can often land uninjured, but it is not always the case and cats can still be seriously injured, break bones or even die from falls. Cats have excellent survival instincts, and they don’t deliberately jump from high places that would be dangerous.

Scary Falls
Most cats fall accidentally from high-rise windows, terraces or fire escapes. This is an especially common summertime issue when many pet owners open windows to enjoy the weather. The occurrence is frequent enough that urban veterinarians have coined a phrase for it: High Rise Syndrome.

Remarkably, a 1987 study by veterinarians at New York’s Animal Medical Center found that cats that fell from heights of 7 to 32 stories were less likely to die than those that fell from 2 to 6 stories. One theory is that from falls above 7 stories, cats have time to reach terminal velocity (physics again!). At this speed, the cat relaxes its limbs and is better able to survive the impact. Another theory is that the greater height gives the cat time to right itself and spread its body out to adopt the parachute pose.

Protecting Your Cat
Of course, it’s always best to prevent accidents from happening in the first place. Cats need to be protected from the risk of falling. Be sure to install snug and sturdy screens in all your windows, and keep cats away from rooftops, balconies, window ledges and other high places. It’s also a good idea to have pet health insurance in place for when the unexpected happens. Cat insurance may help cover expensive veterinary bills for unexpected accidents (like falls) and illnesses too.