The cat’s finely tuned sense of balance is regulated by a specialized organ found deep inside the ear. Balance allows Kitty to travel great heights and effortlessly leap long distances. It is the cat’s uncanny flexibility and motion control, coupled with intricate balance sense that allows the falling cat to land on her feet. She uses a series of spine, shoulder and flank contractions to twist in midair during a fall, and right herself.
Cat Balance Explained
Legends and myths sometimes arise out of a misunderstood truth, and kitty-correct four-paw landings are one such behavior. Yes, cats have an uncanny ability to fall safely from sometimes death-defying heights and land on their feet, which perhaps gave birth to the “nine lives” legend. But do cats always land on their feet? And how do they do it?
I’m sharing a partial excerpt of the BALANCE entry from Cat Facts, The Series #2 (Chapter B) covering Bad Breath, Balance, Behavior, Blood, Bleeding, Blindness, Breed, and Burns. I’ve broken the massive CAT FACTS book into catnip-size alpha-chapter sections. Folks can choose which ones they most need. Each chapter will release every week or so, but ONLY for subscribers on my Amy’s Newsletter Of course, you can still get the entire CAT FACTS book either in Kindle or 540+ pages of print.
How Cats Land On Their Feet
Paw-perfect landings result from the cat’s intricate balance sense. The vestibular organ deep inside the cat’s ears keeps kitty informed about which way is up or down, even if you try to confuse and make him dizzy first. This specialized organ also allows the cat to instantly determine acceleration as she falls.
The vestibular organ contains tiny fluid filled tubes and structures called the semicircular canals, utricle and saccule, each lined with millions of microscopic hairs. Fluid in the utricle and saccule also contain tiny particles of chalk that float and move with every motion. Whenever the cat’s head moves, the fluid and chalk moves against the hairs. The hair movement, like teeny kitty antennae, relay information to the brain about body position, and speed of movement.
The balance mechanism can’t do it alone, though. Once partnered with the yoga-like muscle control of a Houdini master contortionist, the cat twists from side to side during a fall, to right herself.
Do Cats Ever Miss?
Ear infections can affect the cat’s balance so she misjudges height or positioning. Tiny kittens can be injured in falls that might not hurt an adult cat, so kitten-proofing balconies and keeping baby cats “grounded” can help keep them safe.
Falls from short distances—like from a child’s arms—may not allow enough time for the righting mechanism to work. Landing on her feet does not prevent Kitty from sustaining serious injuries during falls.
High Rise Syndrome
High rise syndrome refers to cats who fall great distances out of windows, balconies or open doors. Often the cat lounges on a favorite windowsill, and accidentally pushes window screens out and falls.
Falls from the first through fourth floors are least dangerous because the cat can “right” herself and doesn’t have time to reach top speed of 60 miles per hour—terminal velocity. She won’t fall any faster, no matter the distance. This speed is reached during any fall from higher than the fifth floor.
Falls from the fifth through ninth floor are the most dangerous and result in the worst injuries. The cat falls with legs braced in front of him, and lands rigid. His legs hit first, then his head, and both can suffer terrible bone-shattering injury.
Cats survive falls from higher than nine stories with fewer injuries. Falls from these heights apparently allow the cat time to relax, empty the bladder and “parachute” the legs outward so that the wind catches the loose skin in the thighs and armpits and slows the fall. Landing spread-eagle allows the chest and abdomen to absorb most of the shock, rather than the head and legs.
Keep open windows and balconies off limits to cats. Remember that screens are designed to keep bugs out, not keep cats inside. So protect your cats and windows with secured screens or pet-safe barriers.
Have your cats ever “had a great fall?” What happened? How do you keep your cats safe from high rise exploration? Do tell!
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!