We’ve all seen cats fall from seemingly dangerous heights, land on their feet, and walk away without any indication that they’re hurt. Generally, a cat can fall from up to seven stories and still be mostly alright. However, there have been miraculous reports of cats falling much larger distances and landing unharmed.
According to a study from 1989 that surveyed veterinarian reports of cat falls in New York City, the likeliness of survival without injury actually increases slightly with height! Out of the 132 cats who were reported to have fallen, only eight cats suffered severe enough injuries to be in real danger. One cat fell 32 stories (about 320 feet, or 97 meters) and suffered “only” a chipped tooth and a punctured lung!
How Does It Work?
A cat’s ability to land on its feet has long been observed, questioned, and studied. Broadly speaking, a cat bends in midair, tucks in its front legs and extends its back legs, and allows its front half and back half to rotate at different speeds and around two separate axes. Because of their unusually flexible backbones, this allows a cat to rotate in midair and bring its legs under it in time to land safely on its feet.
Generally, a cat can perform this midair acrobatic feet in as little as 12 inches, which means that falls from less than a foot are more likely to result in a cat landing on its back or side. However, above 12 inches, a cat should have enough time to rotate fully and may repeat the process more than once in order to make sure that they’re fully ready to land.
A cat’s innate righting ability is purely instinctual and starts showing up in cats as young as three or four weeks of age. By the time the kitten is six or seven years old, the skill is completely learned, and the cat should be able to land safely in any daily drops around the house or in the backyard.
For a long time, people believed that cats that had lost their tails were unable to land on their feet, and suspected that it was the cat’s tail that gave it the balance needed to land correctly. However, this has since been proven false, and cats without tails can land just as solidly on all four feet as cats with tails fully intact.
Because cats are predators, they prefer high-up places, and can usually sink their claws into any material to keep themselves safe from a fall. However, as an increasing number of cats are found in large cities with buildings made of concrete, glass, and other smooth materials, they may not be able to get a grip, and are more likely to fall and risk injury.
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So Can a Cat Fall From Any Height?
According to the 1987 study, the likelihood of a cat being injured from a fall increased up to seven stories, and then actually decreased after that. This led many to believe that a cat could hypothetically all from any height and land unharmed. However, due to flaws in the research design of the 1987 study, most now believe that falls from above the seventh story (70 feet or around 21 meters) are more likely to be very dangerous.
Beside their rotational abilities, cats have a lot of other natural advantages that help them reduce damage from a sudden fall. They have a light bone structure and thick fur, which keeps them from falling as quickly as, say, a human would. The terminal velocity of a human–the maximum speed at which they can fall before they stop accelerating downwards–is around 120 mph (190 km/h), but the terminal velocity of the average cat is only 60 mph (97 km/h)!
In addition, as cats fall, they often spread their legs out in a “flying squirrel” pose. This, combined with their thick coats and relatively light weight, creates a parachuting effect. While it won’t be enough to stop their fall completely, it can sometimes slow them down enough to make their landings significantly more safe.
The 1987 study hypothesized that cat’s could survive falling greater heights because they weren’t as tensed up. A cat falling a distance of seven stories or less would usually extend its legs and tense for the landing, which the researchers suspected made them more likely to break their legs. Cats falling a longer distance, however, would have time to relax, which allowed their bodies to absorb the impact.
However, in the years since the study was released, a lot of people have pointed out an obvious flaw in the study design: it didn’t account for any cats that actually died from their falls. Since the study only counted the cats that were brought into a veterinarian’s office after a fall, it was ignoring all the cats that were injured badly enough to not need a veterinarian’s help at all.
In the years since the study was released, a lot of people have used it as proof that a cat could theoretically fall from increasingly exaggerated heights and be alright. Some have even guessed that a cat could jump off the Empire State Building and land unharmed!
However, this is obviously not the case, as cats can be injured at pretty much any height. As a general rule, they should be either unharmed or left with treatable injuries if their fall is less than seven stories. Any higher than that, and your cat runs the risk of injuring themselves severely or even mortally.
How Can I Tell if My Cat Is Alright?
If your cat has fallen–whether it’s a seven story drop or just a drop of a few feet–it’s perfectly normal for you to be more rattled than your cat seems to be! Most of the time, especially if it’s just around the house, your cat should be safe, but it can still be kind of shocking to see them drop so abruptly.
If your cat falls and seems reluctant to get up right away, however, this could be a sign that it was hurt by its fall. Obviously, if you suspect your cat was hurt, any visible blood is a surefire indicator of injury, but some of the other signs can be a little bit more subtle.
In the days after its fall, you may notice your cat seems uncomfortable rising or laying down, or that it walks with a stiff gait or even limps. Cats are such naturally graceful creatures that these sights should seem unusual right away, but cats can sometimes hide their symptoms for a few days after the initial injury.
Other changes to watch out for include changes in behavior. If you notice your cat seems more tired than usual, or if they whine and cry for seemingly no reason, these may be signs of a more serious injury. Watch your cat’s food intake as well, as an injured cat will often eat far less than a healthy cat likes to do.
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Certain fall-related injuries, like a punctured lung or hernias–tears in the lining of the lungs or abdomen–may take some time to manifest. Both of these injuries can start out small but get worse as the cat carries about its daily business. A hernia, in particular, can start as just a very small scratch but get much larger and more dangerous as your cat’s internal functions continue to stress and pull at the tear.
If you notice any of these signs, take your cat to the veterinarian as soon as possible. Generally speaking, the sooner your cat gets medical attention, the better. For this reason, make sure to monitor your cat after a larger-than-usual fall, so that you can get them the help they need as soon as they need it.
If your cat hasn’t shown any signs of pain or discomfort in the first few hours after a fall, you can probably relax a little, but still keep an eye on your cat for the next few days. The first two hours are usually the most important for catching any severe or life-threatening injuries that have manifested immediately after a cat’s unplanned high dive.
The most widely held understanding of a cat’s fall limitations is around seven stories. If your cat falls from anything less than this height, statistically speaking, they stand a high chance of being unharmed or receiving only minor, easily-treated injuries. However, this does not mean that your cat is automatically safe or unharmed by any smaller fall.
If you notice your cat showing any signs of physical distress after a fall of any distance, take them to a veterinarian right away. In cases like this, it truly is better to be safe than sorry. A fall from any height, no matter how short, can still pose a threat to your cat’s safety.
Similarly, if your cat falls from greater than seven stories, they still have a chance of landing unharmed. No matter how far your cat has fallen, make sure they’re alright, and then prepare to be amazed at the midair acrobatics that allow them to walk off such seemingly impossible high dives!
"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
-- Terry Pratchett