You may have heard that cats always land on their feet. Perhaps you've even seen this unique ability in action. Acrobatics in midair may seem like magic to us clumsy humans. However, scientists started investigating the mystery of 'cat turning' nearly 300 years ago. Falling cats reorient their bodies so quickly that human eyesight can't track the movements unaided. Researchers made much more progress after high-speed photography was invented. Science is solving the mystery of cats landing on their feet.
Researchers now know that cats can sense a change in equilibrium when they fall. They react instantly due to an instinctive ability called the righting reflex. This reflex triggers a wide range of movements that help the cat turn and position itself for a safe landing on all four feet. Kittens develop an initial righting reflex 3 to 4 weeks after birth and a fully developed reflex within 6 to 9 weeks.
Cats have several features that help them land on their feet after a fall. They have very light bone structure, a low body-to-weight ratio, and thick fur that minimizes the speed and impact of a fall. Their small bodies are very flexible because their spines have 30 vertebrae instead of 24 vertebrae in the human spine, and their collarbones are also extremely small.
A cat's sensory system can sense equilibrium and body position. Two components of the inner ear, the vestibular apparatus and the semicircular canals provide a cat's sense of balance. Fluid-filled semicircular canals detect rotational movements. The vestibular apparatus contains tiny stones called otoliths and tiny, fine hairs attached to nerves. These nerves send signals to the brain when the cat moves its head.
After the sensory system establishes position, the cat's head moves up automatically. A cat's body twists around in midair by bending around the middle while the front and back legs rotate in opposite directions. The cat pulls the front legs in and extends the rear legs. This motion is reversed, so the front legs extend, then all four paws hit the ground. All of these movements occur in less than 1 second.
Although cats have an uncanny ability to land on their feet, it doesn't always work. A falling cat that reaches terminal velocity, or a constant speed, is more likely to land on its belly. Health factors, such as illness, injury, old age, or obesity may prevent cats from turning fast enough during a fall. Severe eye or ear infections, especially in kittens, can permanently damage a cat's sense of balance as well.
The maximum height for a safe fall depends on the cat and the environment. A soft, grassy surface is safer than cement or rocks. Adult cats can usually fall approximately 8-feet without injury. Falls from the second story of a typical home are risky, and anything above that is likely to cause injuries whether the cat lands on his feet or not.
Cats aren't always able to land on their feet after a short fall. Researchers find that most cats can turn and land on their feet from a height of 4 to 5 feet, but very few cats can successfully turn during a 1-foot fall. Shorter falls aren't as likely to cause injuries, but an unprepared cat could land on its head, back, or side.
The most common fall injuries affect the jawbone, teeth, and eyes because the cat's chin frequently hits the ground first. Other injuries include broken legs, ruptured tendons, and damaged joints. Cat owners should monitor their pets after a fall, even if the cat lands on his feet. Blunt force trauma can cause internal injuries without any visible outward signs.
Cats enjoy sitting on windowsills watching birds or napping in the sun. They also like to sit on terraces, balconies, and fire escapes on tall buildings. Unfortunately, cats can fall from these lofty perches while lunging at a bird, reacting to a loud noise, or even waking up from a dream. A fall from such an extreme height is usually fatal, but some cats survive. Injuries from the fall are called hi-rise syndrome. Cats with hi-rise syndrome need extensive medical care and a long recovery period.
Preventing falls is the best way to avoid injuries. It's very hard to protect an outside cat, so keeping cats inside is a good first step. Surround perches, cat trees, and favorite sleeping spots with cushions or another soft material. Install window guards to prevent accidents without blocking the view. Try to keep cats away from balconies or fire escapes. If this isn't feasible, hang netting around open spaces.
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