Why Do Cats Land On Their Feet? Do They Always?
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley August 17, 2019
Cats are well designed to move around skillfully at great heights, whether they are hunting prey or trying to evade predators. However, this puts them at risk of falling from dangerous heights. Luckily, cats have evolved a way to protect themselves from injuries caused by falling, and that is their ability to right themselves in mid-air and land on their feet. It is commonly assumed that cats always land on their feet after a fall, and this is part of the reason why many people say the phrase “cats have nine lives.” Having the ability to right themselves after a fall is known as the cat righting reflex, which is tied to the cat’s anatomy. In this article, we will explore this phenomenon further.
Why Do Cats Land On Their Feet?
Cats land on their feet because of the cat righting reflex. The cat righting reflex gives cats the ability to turn their bodies around mid-air to land safely on their feet after a fall. This reflex is due to a cat’s flexible spine, lack of a collarbone, powerful back legs, flexible joints, and, most importantly, their inner ear (or vestibular apparatus).
What Is The Cat Righting Reflex?
The cat righting reflex, also known as the aerial righting reflex or air-righting reaction, is the ability cats have to turn their body around while free-falling in order to get their body back to its normal standing posture (Jusufi et al., 2011; Bateson, 2013).
When Does The Cat Righting Reflex Develop?
Kittens as young as 4 weeks of age begin to show the righting reflex, and by 6 weeks of age this reflex is fully developed (Bateson, 2013).
What Factors Affect Whether A Cat Lands On Their Feet Or Not?
Cats develop the righting reflex from a pretty young age. This reflex largely depends on a cat’s spine and back legs, therefore, even cats without a tail have this ability. A number of factors could affect a cat’s ability to right itself in mid-air during a fall. The health status of the cat may influence their righting reflex. Cats with injuries to their spine or back legs may not be able to right themselves properly to land safely. Cats with visual impairments or damage to their inner ear also may have a poor ability to right themselves, as they are unable to assess their physical position in space and determine which way is “up.” A cat who suffers a fall is diagnosed with ‘high-rise syndrome’ (Whitney & Mehlhaff, 1987; AMC, 2014).
The age of a cat might affect their ability to land safely. A 4-year study on Croatian cats found that of the 119 cats that came in suffering from high-rise syndrome, more than half of the cats were less than a year old. This data suggests that cats that are less than a year of age may be less careful about where they are walking and more likely to fall through open windows. The majority of cats suffering from high-rise syndrome come in during the warmer seasons of the year (Vnuk et al., 2004; AMC, 2014). Similar to the study by Whitney and Mehlhaff (1987), over 90% of the cats brought in after a fall survived. However, 46% of the cats had broken limbs (Vnuk et al., 2004). Many cats with high-rise syndrome suffer from an inflamed pancreas (Zimmermann et al., 2013). Other injuries may occur to the chest, head, face, and lungs (AMC, 2014).
One of the main factors that influence the righting reflex in cats is the height at which the cat begins its fall. In order for cats to safely right themselves, the fall needs to be a minimum of 12 inches. There also appears to be an upper limit to the height at which cats can safely fall. Cats who fell less than 5 stories (approximately 54 ft.) were more than 90% likely to survive, although a number of these cats may be prone to injuries (Whitney & Mehlhaff, 1987; Vnuk et al., 2004). Data on cats who fall more than 7 stories is scarce. This suggests that cats who fall from this height or higher may be less likely to make it to the veterinarian, meaning they may have died as a result of the fall.
What Are The Advantages Of Having The Righting Reflex?
The righting reflex helps cats survive falls from high places with few injuries. However, there is a limit to the effectiveness of this reflex. One study found that a cat’s likelihood to be injured after a fall increased with every additional story they fell from. Cats that fell from 5.5 stories or less had a 90% survival rate, although some of these cats suffered from injuries (Whitney & Mehlhaff, 1987). Cats that fell from stories higher than seven stories may suffer from more severe injuries, or even instant death.
Do All Cats Have A Righting Reflex Or Is It Specific To Some Cats?
All cats do have a vestibular apparatus, which is responsible for the righting reflex. In theory, this may suggest that all cats have this reflex. However, one of the reasons domestic cats are so good at righting themselves after a fall is because of their size compared to the heights they fall from. Big cats, such as lions, are much heavier and do not climb to such heights. There are known examples of big cats falling to their death from tall heights, which may suggest this reflex is not present in big cats, or at least that they do not have the physical capacity to right themselves in enough time compared to the heights they may climb.
Do Other Animals Have A Righting Reflex?
Many animals besides cats also have an aerial righting reflex, including squirrels, rabbits, dogs, guinea pigs, and primates. There might even be evidence that this reflex is present in reptiles and invertebrates (Jusufi et al., 2011). If we think of the ability of bigger animals versus smaller animals in how high they climb compared to their body size, it would make sense that the righting reflex is present in smaller animals like the ones listed here.
What Is The Record For The Highest Fall For A Cat?
One cat has the record for the highest fall survived. Tyra, a six-month-old kitten, fell from 17 stories (approximately 184 ft.) and lived to tell the tale. Tyra had damage to her hips and lung but went home after 3 days of veterinary care (AMC, 2014).
How Do I Protect My Cat From Falling?
There are ways to prevent your cat from falling from dangerous heights. If you live in an apartment and have a young cat, it is important for you to keep their safety in mind. Be sure your windows and screens are secure from your curious cat. Keep windows closed if secured screens don’t exist. Be sure all roommates and landlords know not to open any windows or balconies that are not cat-safe. Be careful of letting your cat hang out on a deck or balcony (AMC, 2014). Even if your cat seems to not be interested in exploring the edge of the balcony, it can take just one bird or bee to pique their interest and cause them to go tumbling off.
If your cat falls from a window and survives, they may go hide nearby, making it hard for you to find them. Your local shelter will have useful tips on how to find your lost furry friend again. Any cat that falls from high heights should be monitored for injury. Cats are masters at masking injury and illness, so a trip to the veterinarian and an X-ray may be important to ensure your cat is healthy and happy.
In conclusion, the cat righting reflex gives cats an amazing ability to turn themselves around mid-air to ensure they land safely on the ground. This does not mean cats are immune to injury when falling from heights. Cats need at least 12 inches to be able to activate their incredible reflex. There is also evidence to suggest that while cats can survive falls from five stories, they are likely to suffer injuries at this height. Cats that fall from heights greater than seven stories might be more likely to die from the fall. Cats that are less than a year old are more likely to fall from high heights and falls are more likely to occur during warmer months, likely because cat parents have their windows open. It can take just a split second for a cat to make a mistake that will cause injury or even death. To keep your cat safe, make sure all windows and screens are securely in place and closely monitor cats around open windows, balconies, or decks.
Animal Medical Center (AMC). 2014. High Rise Syndrome in Cats. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
Bateson, P. 2013. Behavioural development in the cat. In D. Turner and P. Bateson (Eds), The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour (p. 201-212). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jusufi, A., Zeng, Y., Full, R.J., and R. Dudley. 2011. Aerial righting reflexes in flightless animals. Integrative and Comparative Biology 51(6):937-943.
Vnuk, D., Pirkić, B., Maticić, D., Radisić B., Stejskal, M., Babić, Kreszinger M., and N. Lemo. 2004. Feline high-rise syndrome: 119 cases (1998-2011). Journal of Feline Medical Surgery 6(5):305-312.
Whitney, W.O., and C.J. Mehlhaff. 1987. High-rise syndrome in cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 192(4):542.
Zimmermann, E., Hittmair, K.M., Suchodolski, J.S., Steiner, J.M., Tichy, A., and G. Dupré. 2013. Serum feline-specific pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity concentrations and abdominal ultrasonographic findings in cats with trauma resulting from high-rise syndrome. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 242(9):1238-1243.