An age-old question: Do cats always land on their feet? The short answer is no, not always—but due to cats’ impressive “righting” reflex and terminal velocity, they do land on their feet an astonishing amount of the time.
Before we delve into the explanations for this phenomenon, please take heed: Do NOT put your cat to the test by throwing him out a second-story window!
Now, with that out of the way, let’s look at why cats always seem to land on their feet. Or, skip to the end of the post to watch a video by our resident veterinarian, Dr. Justine Lee.
Cats may have evolved past living in trees, but they retained the aerial “righting” reflex that allows them to land safely if they fall from a high branch. This righting reflex kicks in virtually any time your cat accidentally rolls off the couch, falls from the windowsill, or is pushed by a naughty feline sibling from the top of the cat tree.
Because of this reflex, he can twist his body like a skydiver, spin his tail in order to position his feet under him, and land with, ahem, dignity.
Terminal velocity—the speed at which the downward force of gravity is matched by the upward push of wind resistance, resulting in a constant speed—plays a hand in those incredible stories about cats falling out of a 19-story window, landing on their feet, and surviving.
It turns out that cats reach terminal velocity at a slow speed compared to large animals and people. According to the 1987 study by veterinarians Wayne Whitney and Cheryl Mehlhaff, an average-sized cat with its limbs extended achieves a terminal velocity of about 60 mph, while an average-sized man reaches a terminal velocity of about 120 mph.
Cats’ springy, compliant legs help them expertly absorb the shock of a hard landing. The fact that a cat’s legs are angled under the body, rather than extended downward like a human’s, also allows for a less direct force of impact. (Their muscular legs also account for cats’ jaw-dropping leaps into the air.)
Avoiding high-rise syndrome
Veterinarians see “high-rise syndrome,” or when curious cats lean and fall out of a window from at least two stories high, occur most often in young, male cats. Even though cats usually survive these falls (and we now know why), significant injury can still occur. Not only may this result in lifelong pain for your kitty, but an ER visit and average fracture repair can cost an upwards of $3,000. Ouch all around!
To avoid high-rise syndrome, keep your windows tightly fastened and make sure all your windows have secure screens. If you do open screened windows, keep an eye (and ear) on your cat all the same—even though it’s unlikely he would scratch at the screen and create a hole large enough to squeeze through, you shouldn’t underestimate a particularly curious kitty.
Do cats always land on their feet? No, but now you know why they so often do!