You may think that falling cats always land on their feet. Contrary to that popular belief, every day cats DO sustain serious injuries from falling out of open windows, off balconies, and from rooftops.
Unlike me (or most human), cats are not acrophobic (fear of heights), and will often leap after a bird or butterfly only to find themselves falling through the air. The trauma sustained from a fall of over two stories (24 to 30 feet) is known as high-rise syndrome.
Usually, if a cat falls a short distance, it can right itself and land on its feet, due to its exceptional coordination and balance, and flexible musculoskeletal system. However, if it falls more than one or two floors, it may sustain injury because its legs and feet cannot absorb the shock.
Textbook Guidelines for Cats to Survive a Fall:
- The cat determines which way is up and rotates the head until it is right side up.
- It brings the front legs up close to the face, ready to protect it from impact.
- It twists the upper part of the spine to bring the front half of its body around in line with the head.
- It bends its hind legs so that all four limbs are ready for touchdown and, as this happens, it twists the rear half of its body to catch up with the front.
However, whether or not a cat lands on its feet depends on several factors, including the distance it falls and the surface on which it falls.
Cats have the ability to right themselves in midair thanks to the vestibular apparatus. This is a tiny fluid-filled organ housed deep in their inner ear that is responsible for their remarkable balance. It is composed of tiny chambers and canals lined with millions of sensitive hairs and filled with fluid and minute floating crystals. When cats move, the fluid shifts, giving readings on the body's position – similar to the instrument in an airplane called the "artificial horizon" that tells the pilot the position of the plane's wings in relation to the horizon.
When a cat falls, the vestibular apparatus becomes active, and helps the cat register which way is up. This allows the cat to right himself in midair by adjusting the orientation of the body. The righting reflex appears in a kitten at three to four weeks and is perfected by seven weeks.
The uniqueness of the cat's skeleton is another reason they can right themselves. A cat does not have a collarbone and the bones in his backbone have more mobility than in many other animals. So cats have free movement of their front legs and they can bend and rotate their bodies like a pretzel.
And what about dogs — how do they do in falls?
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