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How Cats Survive Falls From High Places

Updated on March 8, 2015
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Physics, Physique and Reflexes Do The Fandango

We all know that when cats fall, but not feet-first, they still land on their feet...almost every time. Most of us just assume that's the end of it. The fact is they often suffer horrific injuries.

But first, a few words about how they manage to land on their feet. Cats have an exceptional sense of balance, which is why they can walk so easily on a narrow ledge. They also lack a collar bone, and their spine is extremely flexible.

Those skeletal advantages give cats freer movement of their front legs, and the ability to bend and rotate their bodies. When they do fall they can right themselves in less than a second, a reflex developed usually by the time they're seven weeks old.

Although this righting reflex gives them the ability to somewhat cushion a hard landing from dangerous heights, it doesn't necessarily protect them from injury. And vets are seeing more and more cats with injuries incurred in long falls.

They call it high-rise syndrome, and it's more common now for several reasons. More and more, people are keeping their cats indoors. Cats love to sit in the windowsill, but if the screens aren't secure they can fall out.

The proliferation of apartment buildings and condo complexes has created much more housing above the second floor, and much of today's new construction features balconies, decks and porches.

The most severe injuries generally occur in falls from two to seven floors. That's because of the laws of physics, which I couldn't grasp in high school. I can't grasp them now, either.

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I do know this, though. A falling cat is not a textbook example of aerodynamic perfection. Its loose skin, haircoat, and tail create considerable drag. I direct your attention to the blackboard.

The arrow pointing downward represents gravity, which causes the cat to fall at a rate of speed determined by its body weight. The arrow pointing upward is a representation of the force of the air against which it is falling.

The cat can thank its righting reflex for creating the drag. Otherwise it would fall like bag of rocks, just like us collar boned bipeds with the spines that aren't as flexible as the feline spine.

The cat's rate of descent accelerates between the second and seventh story. Once it has fallen about seven stories it achieves terminal velocity. That's when the force of air against its outstretched body equals the force of the gravity that's pulling it earthward.

Although the cat may fall several more stories, it isn't traveling any faster than it was when its fall reached the equivalent of seven stories. So now, it can just relax. And it does to a certain degree, because it has lost the sensation of falling.

With its joints loose and its legs flexed, the impact of hitting the ground is more evenly distributed throughout its body. Kitty is more likely to survive a fall of greater than seven stories because it had time to reach terminal velocity.

But the injuries cats sustain can be terrible, and even fatal. Skeletal injuries include broken facial bones, jaws, teeth, ribs, legs, and spine. The lungs, liver, diaphragm, and other organs within the abdominal cavity can be damaged, as well. While they may survive the fall, their injuries may be so severe that euthanasia is the only option.

As reported on webmd.com, veterinarians at the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital see approximately three to five cases a week during the warmer months. There is some encouraging news, though. There is a 90-percent survival rate for cats that are high-rise syndrome victims if they receive immediate and proper medical attention.

As is so often the case, prevention is the key. Make sure screens are secure and that cats can't get onto the railings of decks, balconies and porches. It’s also a good idea to plant soft shrubs beneath windows and decks, a few feet from the foundation; just in case.

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Willow, your headline is more appropriate than mine! We had to attach some wooden lattice panels to our deck railings so our indoor cat could get some fresh air.

      When we first let her out on the deck, she jumped up on the rail and was not hesitant about making the the leap to the ground, about 15 feet below. So we "cat-proofed" the deck, festooning it with lattice work so she couldn't get through or over the railing. Sadly, she's gone now, so our deck is back to normal, but she showed no fear at all.

      Your experience with Mrs. N is one that I'll bet is shared by many. You're right...they do it with such dignity. Even if they fall off, they pick themselves up and cop that "I-meant-to-do-that" attitude.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting; nice to see you again. Regards, Bob

      Hi tobint44, glad you stopped by. If your cat is like most, she's probably mocking you..."If you think this is scary, you should see how I"d handle an 18th story rail." Cats favor heights while many of us are afraid of heights, so we usually react with a degree of alarm. To them, it's no biggy. Thanks, again, for voting and commenting. Regards, Bob

    • tobint44 profile image

      Tyler Tobin 4 years ago from North Carolina

      My cat is definitely not afraid of heights. Being an indoor cat, she decides frequently to test walking the 2nd story stair rails. Interesting information, voted up!

    • Willow the Wisp profile image

      Willow the Wisp 4 years ago

      Ha! The title should read "Much to their owners peril cats aren't afraid of heights"

      My childhood cat Mrs.N jumped off the window ledge of my bedroom (which was about 25ft off the ground). She landed like she had just jumped off the couch, on all 4 paws, totally dignified. Amazing. The image of her doing that has stuck with me for years.

      Thanks for a really well written and interesting article Bob!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Peggy, thanks for stopping by, voting, and commenting. I guess we figure that cats are so sure-footed, we never think of them falling from anything. And one wouldn't think that they have a better chance at surviving an 8 story fall than a 4 story fall. It's always nice to hear from a Level 8; thanks for taking the time to weigh in. Regards, Bob

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

      This was very interesting to read about the terminal velocity being reached at a certain point and also that cats do not have collar bones. I agree with you in that cat owners should do everything within their power to keep their feline buddies safe and secure from inadvertent falls. Up, useful and interesting votes! Also tweeting.