Cats Don't Always Land on their Feet

Cats Don't Always Land on their Feet

Here's what can happen if you leave your window open a crack, your pet can fall out. Really, it happens. It happened to Brittney Kirk in Boston.

Her cat tumbled out the window and fell 19 stories.

She  landed on a patch of grass, and somehow incurred only minor injuries. Dazed and confused the cat was picked up, and identified because she is microchipped (thank goodness for microchips).

In a 1987 study of 132 cats brought to a New York City emergency veterinary clinic after falls from high-rise buildings, 90% of treated cats survived and only 37% needed emergency treatment to keep them alive. One that fell 32 stories onto concrete suffered only a chipped tooth and a collapsed lung and was released after 48 hours.

Still, don't believe it's safe for cats to fall from from great heights. It is not.

Sugar's story made International News - even from the BBC, and I was honored to have quoted in this piece. While the reporter did a great job, the experts interviewed with many letters after their names may know a lot about physics but may not know cats.

Cats reach terminal velocity, the speed at which the downward tug of gravity is matched by the upward push of wind resistance, at a slow speed compared to large animals like humans and horses.

Ok -- makes sense - but then the story goes on to say...

Cats are essentially arboreal animals: when they're not living in homes or in urban alleys, they tend to live in trees.

What? Cats are famous for sometimes not even being able to get down from trees. Many types of monkeys are arboreal so are squirrels, not cats. Just because they can climb trees doesn't make them arboreal. People can climb trees, we are not arboreal. Cats to have ability to walk on branches because of their superb sense of balance (helped by that tail), but they are not considered truly arboreal. Feral cats may climb trees - but they do not live there.

"Being able to survive falls is a critical thing for animals that live in trees, and cats are one of them," says Dr Jake Socha, a biomechanist at Virginia Tech university. . "The domestic cat still contains whatever suite of adaptations they have that have enable cats to be good up in trees."

Then - if given enough time - they are able to twist their bodies like a gymnast, astronaut or skydiver and spin their tails in order to position their feet under their bodies and land on them.

Well the problem with that statement is that righting ability doesn't seem to work as well when cats are overweight or obese. Unfortunately, these days most cats have packed on the pounds, which diminishes their ability to perform athletic stunts.

Cats can also spread their legs out to create a sort of parachute effect, says Andrew Biewener, a professor of organismal and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, although it is unclear how much this slows the rate of descent.

"They splay out their legs, which is going to expand their surface area of the body, and that increases the drag resistance," he says.

Not true either....I am not a physicist, so maybe what is true is that their rate of descent is slowed some. But the Harvard dude is suggesting cats are like flying squirrels and can glide. They can not. The so-called flying squirrels and also sugar gliders, have a membrane of skin (called the patagium) which allows them to glide. Cats don't have this.

Talk about the need for myth-busting....the story continues

"Cats have long, compliant legs," says Jim Usherwood of the structure and motion lab at the Royal Veterinary College. "They've got decent muscles. In that they're able to jump quite well, the same muscles divert energy into decelerating rather than breaking bones."

I wish this was true - ask veterinarians who have treated cats falling from great heights. Sure, sometimes they do walk away as Sugar managed to do. Many times cats will, in fact, break a leg or two or all four....suffer internal injuries, and a broken jaw is common. It's about gravity, while if the cat does right itself, the legs take the brunt of the fall, the head keeps going until it hits the ground - hence broken jaws and sometimes dental damage.

Cats fall from high rise windows so often, the event even has a name, high rise syndrome. This Boston cat made the news just because she did survive, many cats (and sometimes dogs) do not survive, at least without severe injuries.

I received a press release with good advice provided by the Chicago Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Center:
 Don’t leave your pet unattended in rooms with open windows.
 Don’t open windows wide enough for your pet to get through. Child safety locks can minimize how wide a window opens.
 Keep furniture that your pet may climb on, such as couches and chairs, away from open windows.
 Opening windows from the top, not from the bottom, may help protect dogs.
 Don’t rely on a screen to keep your pet safe. Both cats and dogs are known to jump through screens.
 Cats and dogs on a balcony or deck should be on a harness leash held by a responsible adult.


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  • Thanks for all of this pointed information, Steve. Ever since I saw this story I've been wanting to say the same things. Cats do not fly, float, or glide. They are not always the most graceful of creatures either. They can and do fall and they do get hurt.

    Great post!

  • Agreed - Andrea, thanks for the comment!

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