Cat Falls? How Do Cats Land On Their Feet

Ever wonder how cat falls land on their feet? How do they escape injury in high rise syndrome–or do they? Legends and myths sometimes arise out of a misunderstood truth, and kitty-correct four-paw landings are one such behavior.

cat falls

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Yes, cats have an uncanny ability for cat falls to end safely from sometimes death-defying heights and land on their feet, which perhaps gave birth to the “nine lives” legend. After all, if a cat falls from great distance and survives, he or she must have a spare life or two more than “normal” beings, right?

When I worked as a vet tech, though, we saw countless cases of cat falls injury. I still wince thinking about the kitties with split palates and broken jaws or worse. Because those landings aren’t always soft!

When Seren was a kitten, she squeezed between the rails of our second-story landing, and slipped off to fall–and land–on the hardwood floor below. Yep, she did land on her feet–and thank the cat gods kittens bounce!

Many cats get in trouble through their curiosity and hunting instinct. But do cats always land on their feet? And how do they do it?

How Cats Fall & 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. In fact, people have done some crazy experiments, everything from blindfolding Kitty to putting cats in bags or boxes and spinning them around before “test dropping” to see if the the righting mechanism still works.

It does. This specialized organ also allows the cat to instantly determine acceleration as she falls.

Cat Falls Mechanism: The Amazing Ear

The vestibular organ contains tiny fluid filled tubes and structures called the semicircular canals plus the 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 is set in motion, and the floating chalk touches 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.

kitten & cat fallsDo Cat Falls Ever Miss Landing On Feet?

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. Yes, I learned my lesson with Seren!

Cat 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. In fact, because cats adore heights and often look for the tallest perch, fall injuries are not at all uncommon. When the weather turns warm, window-perching cats can be at increased risk.

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.

Cat 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. However, these cats can still end up cracking their chin when they land.

But cat 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.

Surviving & Preventing Dangerous Cat Falls

Kitties survive cat 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 sort of like a flying squirrel that glides. Landing spread-eagle allows the chest and abdomen to absorb most of the shock, rather than the head and legs. These falls can still cause bruised or ruptured internal organs.

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.

Turn about is fair play, too. Keep yourself safe on stairs and other places by learning how to keep kitties from chasing and landing on YOUR feet!

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