Cats are said to “always land on their feet” and while this isn’t universally true, it is the case more often than not, in the context of falls and jumps. This is due to the cat righting reflex, and most cat owners have heard or read tales of cats that fell from a significant height and survived the fall, and for many years, it was largely accepted that a cat was actually more likely to survive a fall from a higher floor than one just a couple of storeys off the ground, for reasons that we’ll cover later on.
So, is a cat more likely to survive a fall from a great height than they are from a more moderate one? The article will tell you. Read on to learn more.
The cat righting reflex is the instinct that kicks in when a cat is falling. It causes the cat to turn themselves in the air (assuming they spend enough time in the air to be able to do this) so that when they hit the floor, they do so on their feet.
The ability to do this, or rather, the body’s instincts that achieve the righting reflex begins to become evident in kittens from just three or four weeks old, and by the time they’re nine weeks old at the latest, it is fully established.
Cats have hugely flexible backbones and floating collarbones; which means that their collarbones are secured only by muscle, and not connected to their spine or neck bones. These traits enable them to move through a wide range of angles, and additionally, there’s a good chance that their tails help with their functional correction in mid-air too, and that their bodies move in a certain way to orient them in the air that starts from the tail and ends with the head.
The chances of surviving a fall and/or of minimising injuries from any fall are far higher if the cat lands on their feet than if they land in any other position. Landing headfirst obviously doesn’t come with great survival odds, and landing on the body increases the risks of damage to one or more of the major organs.
Additionally, the cat’s legs and feet serve as a type of shock absorber too; they are highly flexible and once more, instinctively flex upon landing to ease the pressure of landing, plus the pads of the paws are cushioned and help to absorb some of the shock of impact as well.
Landing feet-first also helps to cushion the impact of the landing across all four feet, reducing the effect of it; and reducing the jarring on the rest of the body.
Even should the impact of the fall result in one or more broken legs to the cat, an impact and injury of this type to the legs has a far higher chance of survival than the same level of impact across any other part of their body.
Not necessarily. The cat’s righting reflex means that if they are in a fall, their bodies instinctively move and orient for a feet-first landing. However, this isn’t instantaneous, and for falls from shorter heights, their bodies might not time to complete the necessary revolution to leave them falling paws downwards, and this can result in an impact on the body rather than the feet.
Once more, not necessarily; obviously an impact from certain heights will be significant enough to be fatal, even if the cat lands on their feet.
The height of the fall, the surface the cat lands on, and various other factors all influence the chances of a cat surviving a fall, and if they do survive the initial impact, how fast and effectively they receive veterinary treatment obviously has a huge part to play too.
Collating data on the odds of cats surviving falls from various different heights is rather challenging for obvious reasons. A study undertaken in 1987 initially found that cats falling from heights of six stories or less that were taken to the vet generally suffered from more serious injuries than those that fell from greater heights.
At the time, it was assumed that this was because either the cat’s righting reflex would not have sufficient time in fall to position them feet first, and/or that a fall from less than six stories does not take long enough for the cat to reach terminal velocity. When terminal velocity is reached in a fall, the cat’s body automatically relaxes and goes limp; this increases their chances of survival, and stiffness upon landing or impact increases the jarring and damage caused to the body.
However, these results were contradicted by a later study, which indicated that cats falling from greater heights were apt to be more, not less, severely injured.
One point that none of the studies have really addressed is that as they are based on collated veterinary data on cats treated after falls, no data on initial mortality is in place. Put simply, cats involved in fatal falls are not as they aren’t treated by a vet ; and this is of course integral to collating data on the danger of falls from various different heights.
Data collated via studies on cats that fell from 2-32 stories and that survived the initial impact of the fall and received immediate veterinary treatment found that a massive 90% of such cats survived. However, once more, this data does not reflect how many cats died in the impact or did not make it to the vets alive after a similar fall.
So, is there any truth in the claim that a fall from a height of over 6 stories is more likely to see a cat survive than a fall from lower than this? We can’t answer this question with any certainty at this point, but it seems that the initial claims of this type made in 1987 don’t have a solid grounding that accounts for all of the variables in play.
As mentioned, the data that this conclusion was built around encompasses cats that survived the initial impact of the fall, but does not account for cats that died on impact. Logically, the higher a fall, the greater the chances the cat would die upon impact, the effect of the righting reflex and terminal velocity notwithstanding, and so this claim cannot be taken as fact.