By Arden Moore, a certified cat and dog behaviorist with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Arden is an author, radio host, and writer for Pets Best, a cat insurance and dog insurance agency.
The following question was sent to me by a fellow cat owner, “I am embarrassed to admit that I would sometimes hold my childhood cat belly up over my head and let him fall. I was amazed that he could twist his body and land on his four feet with ease. I have much more respect for cats as an adult, but I am still intrigued by their athleticism. How do cats manage to maneuver their bodies and land safely?”
This is a great question. My advice is never challenge your cat to a game of Twister. He will win every time, paws down. A flexible musculoskeletal system and a strong sense of balance enable airborne cats to right themselves rapidly and gracefully and, most times, safely.
1.You may be surprised to learn that cats don’t have collarbones, but they do have flexible backbones with five more vertebrae than humans, allowing them to twist and turn in mid-air.
2. Their superior sense of balance and coordination comes from the vestibular apparatus, the fluid-filled canal in the ear that allows both humans and cats to remain upright when walking and to figure out where the ground is in relation to the body. When a cat falls, the fluid activates tiny hairs in the ear canal, allowing the cat to determine its body position and identify which way is up.
Studies on falling cats have discovered that felines who fall from heights of seven stories or fewer face greater injury than those falling from greater heights. In fact, cats have survived falls from as high as 18 stories. The explanation is that after falling five stories or so, a cat reaches terminal velocity. On a longer fall, a cat has time to right himself, relax his muscles, and spread out his limbs like a flying squirrel to slow down his rate of speed.
The actual movements from the start of the fall to the four-on-the-floor finish are quite ballet-like. First, the falling cat rotates his head and the front of his body to bring his legs underneath his body. Just as he lands, he brings the front legs closer to his face to absorb some of the impact and bends his back legs to prepare for the jolt.
As agile as cats are, they do not always land on their feet. Cats have suffered injury or even died from falls off of counter tops and two-story balconies. That’s why I strongly urge all cat owners to make sure that all window screens are sturdy and will not pop open from the weight of a cat perched on the sill. And don’t let your cat roam unsupervised on a balcony. All it takes is for one sparrow to fly by and your bird-chasing cat could leap up and over the balcony ledge in determined pursuit.
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This article has been adapted from its original version in Arden’s book, The Cat Behavior Answer Book.