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Why Cats Always Land On Their Feet

 
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. December 8, 2020
Why Cats Always Land On Their Feet

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Some people question do cats always land on their feet? You might see videos of cats falling awkwardly or taking a tumble when jumping a long distance, but a healthy cat falling from height will always fall on their feet unless something gets in the way. The reason for this is due to something called the cat righting reflex. It is a natural ability which cats have to help them avoid injury when they fall.

At AnimalWised, we explain why cats always land on their feet by explaining the cat righting reflex. We also take a look at any possible reasons why a cat might lose this ability.

You may also be interested in: Why Do Dogs Sit on Your Feet?

Are cats indestructible?

There is a common myth about cats that they have nine lives, or seven in certain cultures. While not actually true, its origin comes from the fact that cats seem to be able to survive even violent situations relatively unscathed. This could be a fight with another cat, being knocked over while walking underfoot or even falling from a great height. Since cats always land on their feet, some people think of them being indestructible.

As much as we would love our cats to be impervious to danger, cats landing on their feet doesn't mean they are immortal. Gravity will still cause our cat to hit the ground with force if it is high enough. They can break bones, be unable to walk or receive life-threatening trauma.

It is true that cats can survive falls from tall heights without suffering damage, but if it is tall enough, the cat will come to harm. Part of the problem is that cats are naturally inclined to climb heights. In the wild, they often spend time in trees to both protect themselves from predators and look for prey. Domestic cats exhibit this behavior by climbing up on shelves or hanging out on the back of the sofa.

Such a predilection for heights can lead to something known as high-rise syndrome. This is a term used for injuries which cats received by falling from height. Cats falling from a tree can often claw the bark to stay attached, but this is difficult on the edifices of buildings or other manmade structures. For this reason, we need to be very careful if we live in multi-storey apartment buildings.

El proceso, ¿por qué caen de pie?

The cat righting reflex is something which has fascinated zoologists, biologists and even sports scientists. This is because the ability to always land on their feet gives cats an advantage which can help us how to protect ourselves when falling, something useful to gymnasts and other athletes. Unfortunately, the reason cats fall on their feet means it is not something we can replicate naturally.

Two fundamental factors allow the cat to right themselves when falling: hearing and flexibility. As with other animals, the inner ear of a cat is part of their vestibular system. This is a sensory system which affects balance and spatial awareness. Within this system is a fluid which moves within part of the ear canal, indicating whether the cat has lost their center of gravity. This initiates the reflex, but may also be aided by the cat's vision.

Feline flexibility is also a fundamental component. When a cat falls, the first thing they try to do is straighten their head and neck. Newton's laws of motion help us to understand since they show that a body rotating on its axis generates resistance and changes its speed.

This principle helps to explain why a cat is able to make a 180º turn and straighten their spine. As they do this, they retract their front legs and extend their back legs to allow them to rotate the front half of their body. They bend in the middle of their spine thanks to their great flexibility. They can then extend their front legs and retract the back to allow them to rotate the back half of their body.

Once the cat is righted and reaches the top speed, they will move their limbs to an even position. When the cat lands they will gather their legs and arch their spine for impact.

The reflex that is generated in the ear takes a thousandth of a second to activate, but the cat needs another vital seconds to be able to make all the necessary turns that allow them to land on their feet. If the distance of the fall is too short they will not succeed. If it is taller, they may succeed and reach the ground unharmed, but they may cause a lot of damage if they fall from a sufficient height.

Why Cats Always Land On Their Feet - El proceso, ¿por qué caen de pie?

How cats cushion their fall

The cat righting reflex is not the only reason cats can be protected when they fall. The fact that a cat has light bones also means and have a small size helps them to stay better protected than other animals, such as we humans.

Terminal velocity is the maximum speed which an object reaches as they are falling through the air. This maximum speed can be lessened by increasing the drag, i.e. the air resistance which can help slow the object. Cats have increased drag thanks to the way they move their limbs, but also their fur increases air resistance. This suggests than cats with more fur might be safer than those without.

How a cat lands after the fall is also vital to protecting them, especially thanks to their legs. Although they may not look substantial, a cat's legs are muscular and a vital part of how they navigate so stealthily. They also cushion their fall by acting as shock absorbers. This spreads the force out across four limbs and allows them to protect their body.

A cat's tail can help in stabilizing the body as they fall through the air. However, cats which have a bobtail or short tail will also use their righting reflex.

Why Cats Always Land On Their Feet - How cats cushion their fall

Reasons a cat doesn't land on their feet

Although we say cats always land on their feet, we might have seen examples where they don't or if they land awkwardly. There are a couple of exceptions which means their reflex may be impaired. These include:

  • Age: a kitten's righting reflex doesn't begin until about 3 or 4 weeks of age and can take up to 7 weeks to be completely effective. This means newborn kittens may fall and not land on their feet. However, during this period, kittens should remain with their mother and siblings, so it is unlikely they will be in a position to fall from a height. It does remind us why it is so important to protect newborn kittens as they are so vulnerable.
  • Disease: if a cat has certain diseases, it may affect their ability to land on their feet. This is particularly the case if they have a severe ear infection as it can cause the vestibular system to not work properly. Other diseases might cause them to faint, such as pneumonia or heat stroke. A cat might fall in the first place because they have fainted for whatever reason. Ataxia in cats can also result in imbalance.
  • Height: the cat righting reflex will only kick in if they fall from a sufficient height. This is the height it takes from them to outstretch their limbs, rotate their body and land on their feet. Usually, this is about 3 feet. Some studies suggest that a cat might be safer if they fall from a taller height since they may have more time to right themselves after reaching terminal velocity, but a more recent study has refuted this theory[1].
  • Gravity: research carried out at zero gravity shows that the cat's righting reflex does not work and they flail in the air. This is likely because the fluid in the cat's vestibular system is also affected by gravity and it cannot determine their relation to the ground. Fortunately, there are few reasons why your cat would be in zero gravity.

Although cats have an advantage when it comes to landing on their feet, they are not immortal. We still need to safeguard them and ensure they don't fall from heights. We also need to know first aid for cats in case they receive any kind of traumatic injury.

If you want to read similar articles to Why Cats Always Land On Their Feet, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

References

1. Venuk, D., et al. (2004). Feline high-rise syndrome: 119 cases (1998–2001). Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 6(5), 305-312.

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