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How Do Cats Survive Long Falls? What Science Tells Us

Cats have been wowing humans with their inexplicable skill for surviving long falls for decades. A senior cat named Gloucester survived a 20-story plunge from its apartment in the Upper West Side in 2011. Another cat in New York fell from a 32nd-story window and lived with just a chipped tooth and collapsed lungs to show for it.

Humans certainly couldn’t survive falls from that height, so how do cats do it? For one, cats have an innate”righting reflex” which allows them to orient themselves while falling so they can land on their feet. This combined with their resilient physical makeup, it’s only natural that cats have a great ability to survive long falls.

Come along with us as we further explore a cat’s natural ability to endure high falls.

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How Can Cats Survive Long Falls?

Cats in the wild are essential arboreal creatures, often spending a lot of time in trees. It’s to be expected that any animal spending that much time in the trees will occasionally take a tumble from a branch. Thankfully, nature has gifted them with the incredible ability to survive such potentially devastating falls.

When cats fall from a high place, they twist their bodies to right themselves during the fall. This righting reflex is an innate ability in cats to orient themselves while falling so they can land on their feet. Pair this reflex with cats’ absence of a clavicle, flexible backbones, and strong back legs, and you have a perfect recipe for minimizing the impact of a high fall.

What is the science behind this ability to survive, though?

Terminal velocity.

Terminal velocity refers to the speed at which a free-falling object encounters the same amount of wind resistance as gravitational pull. This is the speed that acceleration stops. Cats will reach this speed at around 60 miles per hour or at around five stories of free falling. On the other hand, humans won’t reach terminal velocity until about 120 miles per hour.1

Cats can tell when their bodies are accelerating, so they can tell when they’ve reached terminal velocity. This allows them to allow their bodies to relax in preparation for landing. The same would apply to humans; the more we can relax our bodies before a fall, the better our chances are of surviving or escaping without serious injury.

Another factor contributing to cats’ ability to survive a fall is that they can spread their legs out to create a parachute effect. This expands their surface area and helps to increase drag resistance.

Then, when cats do finally land, their long and muscular legs act as shock absorbers.

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Image Credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock

What Is High-Rise Syndrome?

High-rise syndrome is a term used by veterinarians that refers to the injuries cats receive after falling from a building. It typically occurs after falls higher than two stories.

The most common types of injuries a cat will sustain after such a fall include:
  • Broken bones
  • Leg injuries
  • Joint injuries
  • Ligament injuries
  • Internal injuries

A study from 1987 looked at 132 cats diagnosed with high-rise syndrome. Ninety percent of the cats studied had some kind of thoracic trauma, with 57% having facial trauma, 39% having limb fractures, and 24% going into shock.2 Of the 132 cats studied, 90% survived their falls, and 30% didn’t need treatment at all.

More shocking than that, studies show that cats that fall from heights under six typically experience more severe trauma than those who fall over six stories. One theory suggests that this is because cats will reach terminal velocity at five stories, at which point their bodies will relax, providing a better-distributed impact force. When cats fall from heights of two to seven stories, they don’t have enough time to reach terminal velocity and prepare themselves for a feet-first landing.

Image Credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock

Preventing High-Rise Syndrome

If you live in a high-rise, you must do what you can to prevent your pet from falling.

The easiest way to keep your pet safe is to keep them indoors or consider investing in a full-screened enclosure for your deck or terrace.

Keep your windows closed at all times. If you want fresh air flowing through your space, install a sturdy and snugly fitting screen. If you have adjustable screens, ensure they’re tightly attached to your window to prevent your determined and curious cat from knocking them over.

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Final Thoughts

Cats may be graceful pets 99% of the time, but it’s the other 1% you should worry about. While they can survive staggeringly high falls, this doesn’t mean every fall will have a happy outcome. So it’s in your best interest, especially if you live in an apartment or condo building, to keep your kitty inside to prevent it from testing out its terminal velocity.

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Featured Image Credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock