You've heard the saying that cats have nine lives. There's also another saying that curiosity killed the cat. Those sayings both have some truth and folklore behind them, but the fact of the matter is cats do some extraordinary things, and jumping is one of them.
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Because they seem to be able to survive many precarious situations, the folklore around them having "nine lives" developed alongside a mystical symbolism for the number 9. Cats have an innate ability to land on their feet, even after falling from great heights. When they jump, they can jump high and when they land, they usually land on their feet! Science has studied this and figured out how they are able to make it happen.
How high can cats jump?
The answer to the question how high can a cat jump depends on many things. The cat's age and size will determine how high they can jump. A cat's individual level of health will also help determine the distance they can jump. The Hills Pet blog says cats can easily jump to a height exceeding six times their own height, meaning a healthy, agile 1-foot-tall cat can be expected to jump up to six feet!
Cats are natural hunters and seem to enjoy peering over their "landscape" from a position of height so they can be protected from land-dwelling predators and see the crawly creatures on the ground that might be good to eat. Domestic cats don't need to leap and jump like their tree-dwelling cat ancestors did, but there's no doubt that they still have instincts to do so. Even so, they still enjoy leaping and hunting, just like their big-cat relatives.
The Journal of Experimental Biology published a study on cats jumping. That study determined that cats are superior jumpers thanks to the muscle mass of their back legs and the length of their legs. Cats maximize their jumping strength by starting in a deep crouch, then lift their front legs before "an explosive extension" of their back legs.
A cat's "righting reflex"
Thanks to their '"righting reflex," cats are able to land on their feet even if they fall from very high heights. In fact, Wired magazine reports that a higher fall correlates to a higher rate of survival. In fact, cats falling between five and nine stories are the ones most likely to be injured. Cats that fall a higher distance, though, have a higher survival rate.
It all comes down to physics. When a cat first jumps or falls from whatever height, there is no air resistance force and nothing pushing up against the gravitational force. For a moment while falling, the cat will feel weightless. At this time it will use its instinct to twist and rotate its body so that its feet are pointing in the right direction.
How can cats jump so high?
Evolutionarily speaking, house cats are still very much like their early cat ancestors. Those cat ancestors mostly lived in the jungles and forests and spent most of their time in trees. The Canidae blog explains that the evolutionary ancestors of cats had to be able to leap out of the trees, catch their prey, then get back into the trees with their meal. The strong back legs helped them both leap farther and have the strength to carry their prey back up into the trees where it would be safer from other predators.
Their powerful back legs allow them to push off from whatever surface they're jumping from with a great deal of force. Cats' flexible spines are the result of a larger number of vertebrae — 53 vertebrae as compared to the 33 vertebrae in humans — more than practically any other animal.