Why do Cats Fall from Heights and Survive Without Any Issues?

1. Why do Cats Prefer Being in High Places?

In the wild, cats naturally seek out high places to survey their surroundings. This advantageous position allows them to track prey and hunt more easily. Unlike humans, cats find relaxation in being elevated as it provides a safe spot for eating, grooming, and napping.

Although domestic cats do not have to worry about becoming someone else’s meal, being up high allows them to observe other annoyances, such as dogs or children. It also provides them with multiple escape routes, unlike the ground, which is much more limiting.

Cats enjoying heights

The inclination to seek heights also stems from their hierarchical system within the household. Cats view being up high as a sign of dominance, making them the “kings” of their domain. If another cat attempts to challenge their position, it can lead to a showdown. Fortunately, the feline hierarchy is flexible, and they often take turns being the “ruler” of the household.

2. Why do Cats Survive Falls from Heights?

a. How Far Can Cats Fall?

The tendency for cats to climb to high positions increases their chances of falling from great heights. However, it is the astonishing ability of cats to survive falls from seemingly deadly heights that leaves us amazed. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that cats escape without injuries; they may simply hide any pain they experience. Several factors affect whether a cat will get injured when falling from a great height:

  • Overweight cats are more prone to injuries.
  • Kittens and elderly cats have weaker bones.
  • A softer landing surface reduces impact and the risk of trauma.
  • Falls from moderate heights are less likely to cause harm.
  • The agility of each individual cat also plays a role.

Cats can jump up to approximately 2.5 meters and land without getting hurt. It is a common misconception that falling from a low height is safe for cats. In reality, when falling from an insufficient height, cats don’t have enough time to prepare for landing and minimize the impact.

Kitten falling from a high place

There is no specific rule regarding the height at which a cat can fall without injury or die. It depends on the age and physical condition of the cat. Any height exceeding 2.5 meters is dangerous, but falling from a greater height gives the cat more time to adapt to the situation.

It is vital to note that just because a cat can survive falls from heights doesn’t mean it is safe to do so. You should never push or drop a cat from a high place to test its resilience. Older cats, in particular, have a significantly harder time dealing with fall-related injuries. Even under normal circumstances, older cats may already have joint issues, so extra caution must be taken to prevent falls. To avoid regrettable situations, it is advisable to learn how to support aging cats following appropriate guidelines.

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b. Why Do Cats Survive Falls from Heights?

Studies conducted on cats brought to emergency veterinary clinics in New York City after falling from tall buildings showed that 90% of them survived and only 37% required urgent treatment to save their lives. One cat fell from the 32nd floor onto concrete and only suffered a broken tooth and collapsed lung, making a full recovery within 48 hours.

Surprisingly, evidence suggests that cats have a higher likelihood of severe injuries and death when falling from lower heights. A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1982 examined 132 cats that fell from approximately 5 stories; about one-third of these cats would have died without urgent medical care.

Scientists explain that a cat’s body is designed to withstand falls from heights due to a combination of its physical structure and instinctive reflexes.

  • First, cats possess an innate ability called “righting reflex.” This reflex enables cats to orient themselves in mid-air, ensuring that they land on their feet when falling. It means that a falling cat will rotate its body in mid-air to face the ground before landing. The righting reflex begins to appear when a cat is 3-4 weeks old and fully develops by weeks 6-9.

Cats using their righting reflex

Cats accomplish this feat because they have flexible, agile spines with unique discs between each vertebra. These discs allow them to twist and turn, performing their extraordinary acrobatics. A falling cat can rotate its body up to 180 degrees within one second! The minimum height required for most cats to perform this righting reflex safely is around 90 cm. Insufficient time prevents cats from executing this reflex.

  • Second, the strength in a cat’s legs plays a vital role. Despite their deceptively small appearance, a cat’s leg muscles are surprisingly powerful. You can witness some impressive leg abilities of cats here. The paw pads act as natural shock absorbers, so when a cat lands on its feet after a fall, the impact distributes evenly throughout its body.

Cat's strong legs

For a long time, it was wrongly believed that a cat losing its tail would lose the ability to land on its feet accurately. However, this has been proven false, as tailless cats are still capable of landing firmly on all four paws, just like their tailed counterparts.

These remarkable abilities enable cats to survive falls from great heights. It is this uncanny resilience that leads people to believe that cats have nine lives.

c. Can Cats Always Land Safely on Their Feet?

Cats instinctively try to land on their feet by using their righting reflex. However, this might not always prevent injuries when they fall from heights. The outcome depends on the degree of the cat’s fall and its physical condition at the time of the fall.

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But landing on their feet is not always the best strategy. It is only effective at a certain height. If a cat falls from a very high place, like the 32nd floor of a building, it will perform a different type of landing. It involves a physical phenomenon known as “terminal velocity.”

Terminal velocity is the highest speed that can be attained by an object falling through a fluid, such as air or water. When reaching terminal velocity, the downward force of gravity becomes balanced by the net upward force of buoyancy and drag. An object at terminal velocity has a true weight of zero.

If a cat falls from a height that allows it to reach terminal velocity, it increases its chances of survival and reduces the risk of injury.

Cat falling from great height

Imagine standing at the top of a 10-story building, approximately 30 meters high. If you were to fall from that building, your terminal velocity would be approximately 190 km/h, and you would hit the ground in just a few seconds. Yet, when a cat falls from a great height, its terminal velocity is about 97 km/h, nearly half the speed of a human. This allows the cat more time to adjust its body.

When a cat reaches terminal velocity, it loosens its body and spreads its limbs. This action increases the surface area of its body, creating more drag. The extended limbs, combined with the thick fur and relatively light weight of the cat, function similarly to a parachute, slowing down the fall even further. While it may not completely prevent the fall, it significantly improves the safety of the cat’s landing.

However, this method is not foolproof. Even if a cat lands on its feet, there is still a risk of serious injuries, such as collapsed lungs or broken ribs. The lower terminal velocity reduces the chances of survival after higher falls but does not make cats invulnerable.

3. Places Where Cats Fall from Heights

a. Tables, Cabinets, and Household Items

Cats frequently fall from heights within a home, often from low heights. However, the height of a wardrobe, kitchen cabinet, or refrigerator is rarely enough to cause harm to a cat. It can happen, but it is quite rare. Older cats are an exception to this.

Cat falling from a table

Cats use their hind legs predominantly for jumping. Unfortunately, many older cats experience weakened hind legs due to degenerative cartilage. This can make the cat jump and land uncomfortably. The more a cat relies on these leg muscles, the more pressure is exerted on them. This exacerbates existing joint pain in older cats, making falls from seemingly harmless heights much more challenging.

b. Falling from a Second-Floor Balcony

A two-story building poses a considerable height challenge for cats. It is nearly double the height at which a cat can comfortably jump. Whether a cat gets injured upon landing after falling from the second floor depends on several factors.

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A healthy cat with average weight would most likely be fine. Older or heavier cats have a higher risk of getting injured. This is due to the greater impact and the weaker bone structure of such cats, which can lead to fractures, such as a broken femur, pelvis, or jaw.

Cat falling from a second-floor balcony

However, it also depends on whether the falling cat manages to land on its feet. If it falls abruptly, the cat may not have time to execute the righting reflex. In such cases, injuries are almost inevitable.

c. Falling from High-Rise Apartments

You might be surprised to learn that cats have a higher chance of survival when falling from significant heights. They can apply the appropriate posture to reach terminal velocity and avoid death. However, injuries are almost inevitable.

d. Falling from Trees

Cats are prone to falling from trees, especially when startled by sudden noises. If stressed, a cat’s instinct diminishes. Additionally, trees are not a flat surface, making it easier for cats to lose their balance.

Cats can climb trees with ease, using their claws and their own momentum to reach great heights. However, climbing down a tree is not as straightforward for them. They often end up stuck, waiting for rescue. Essentially, cats cannot climb down trees the way they climb up them. The reason why is explained in more detail in the following article.

Cat stuck in a tree

Falling from a tree is hazardous for cats. It is too high for them to jump down safely on all four feet but not high enough for them to reach terminal velocity.

4. How to Prevent Cats from Falling from Heights

No matter the height, you never want your cat to fall from above. Anything can happen, and the chances of a cat surviving a fall unharmed are slim. Therefore, it is crucial to take preventive measures from the start.

  • If you want to open a window, always install sturdy and well-fitting screens. These will prevent cats from falling right from the beginning. If you lack proper window screens, make sure to keep your windows closed.
  • Adjustable screens should be securely fastened to prevent them from being knocked down, whether it be by curious pets or strong winds.

Prevent cats from falling with window screens

  • Childproof window protectors are not suitable for keeping cats safe. Although they create a safe gap for children, cats can easily squeeze through small openings. Remember, cats are remarkably fluid creatures. They can fit into places you wouldn’t expect.
  • To ensure the complete safety of your pet, keep your cat strictly indoors. This has the added benefit of protecting them from cars, other animals, diseases, and themselves.

In Conclusion

With their natural instincts, cats enjoy climbing to high places. This predisposition makes them susceptible to falling. What surprises many is their miraculous ability to survive these falls. It is due to their body structure and righting reflex.

Though they may not die, cats can still experience varying degrees of injuries when falling from heights. Cats falling from lower heights have less time to adjust themselves through the righting reflex, making them more prone to injury and increased danger. Shielding your home, closing doors, or installing secure screens are ways to prevent cats from falling.

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