Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … a falling cat!?
If you’ve ever owned a cat, you probably know that they’re pretty great when it comes to jumping from great heights. Whether leaping out of a tree or hooping right down on top of you as you lay peacefully on the couch, their balance appears to be impeccable. But what you may not realize is just how agile cats truly are – and it has nothing to do with balance.
Case In Point: A cat fell/jumped from a 32-story New York City high-rise building and suffered only a mild lung puncture and a chipped tooth. And this case is not at all out of the ordinary. One research study showed that of 22 falling cats that plunged seven stories or more, only one died. In the group of 13 cats that fell more than nine stories, only a single fracture was recorded.1
How is this even possible? It’s all about physics, right?
How Falling Cats Defy Gravity
Well, as it turns out, there are a few genetic factors that help falling cats survive. And basic physics definitely plays a role.
Cats have a pretty large surface area in proportion to their weight. This means they fall at a much slower speed than humans. In fact, a cat’s terminal velocity is around 60 mph, compared with a human’s velocity of 120 mph.
Cat Leg Anatomy
Cats legs are long, muscular, and extend under their bodies. Your legs extend straight down, so in a fall they’d absorb the shock for you if you land on your feet. A cat’s legs are better able to disperse this shock and spread it out into its joints.
Cats are considered arboreal, meaning they often live in trees if they don’t have a home. Much like monkeys, evolution has equipped them with bodies that are able to minimize the damage of a fall.
The Parachute Effect
A falling cat exhibits a kind of parachute effect. They spread their legs out wide, further expanding the surface area of their bodies. It’s not known how much this actually slows them down, but it does increase the air resistance.2,3
Does A Falling Cat Always Land on Its Feet?
In short: Yes. Maybe not always, but the ratio is incredibly high. And once again, they have evolution to thank for the physics at play.
In a remarkable kind of reflex reaction, falling cats naturally correct their course, so that their feet are able to hit the ground first. In fact, a falling cat’s inner ear quickly determines which side is up, and the animal twists its body (cats have very flexible spines) so that it lands on its feet.
And did you know a falling cat can even protect its face by placing its front paws close to its head? You see, cats operate more like a parachute than anything else. And incredibly, cats usually manage to relax as they fall.
That said, experts also note that height plays a big part – and not in the way you might think. Greater heights seem to give a falling cat more time to correctly position itself, lessening the chance of injury than a fall from just a few floors up. The good news for cats who’ve lost their tails: a tail is irrelevant during this process.4
Still, a 32-story fall is pushing your luck, even for a cat.
How High Can Cats Jump?
You now know how adept cats are at falling, but let’s take a look at the reverse picture. Cats, it turns out, are also great at jumping upward and outward. It’s estimated that a cat can jump about six times its length — potentially up to eight feet — in a single bound. This is where tails are useful, as they can help a cat balance during their jump.5
How Long Do Cats Live?
If they’re regularly jumping out of high-rise buildings, their nine lives won’t last long. But on average, a cat’s lifespan is between 10 to 15 years. And indoor cats (who don’t like to jump from high windows) tend to live longer than outdoor cats.6
Physics, Free Falls, and Your Cat
Here’s the thing: Vets highly recommend that if you don’t live on a ground floor, you should always have screens on your windows. Though falling cats can defy gravity, and can seemingly act as their own parachute, that doesn’t mean that they should.
While cats have a physiological ability to survive falls if they happen, they’re not actually meant to happen. It’s purely a clever built-in safety mechanism, just as humans have a built-in safety reflex to pull away quickly after touching a hot stove. Just because we have that reflex, it doesn’t mean we should keep putting our hand near the flame.
Protect your cat from windows, like you would a small child, so their nine lives can be spent happily snuggling up with you instead.
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