Why Are Cats So Flexible?
Cats are remarkable animals and are interesting to observe. You may even look at them as being a super-animal! Cats can spring up to nine times their height... from a sitting position! They can narrow their shoulders and chest to squeeze through the tightest of places, but most amazing of all, they can right themselves in a mid-air twist to land upon their feet!
Cats can spring so high into the sky because of their flexible spines and shoulders and their springing muscles in their legs. How high can you jump from a sitting position? If you can jump nine times your height then I'd say you're half cat or half cat and half grasshopper!
Twist, Turn and Rotate
Cats can twist and turn their bodies and rotate their spine more than practically any other animal because their high number of vertebrae (53 vertebrae as compared to the 33 vertebrae in humans) are flexibly connected with an elastic like cushion on their disks. This makes for an extremely limber spine which allows cats to perform their acrobatic movements and impossible contortions.
Spine and Speed
This special spine also contributes to their speed for pursuing prey. Cats increase their stride by alternately flexing and extending their backs. When the cat pushes off their paws to start a stride, their claws aid the push off by spiking into the ground, thus serving as traction. As its body stretches to maximum length, every stride propels the cat about three times the length of its body, forward! It's interesting to note that the feline shoulder blade is not attached to their body by bone but by muscle. This gives them the freedom to move as a cat moves and extend its running stride even more.
The Big Squeeze
The cat's collarbone or clavicle is buried in the shoulder region muscles and doesn't connect with other bones (unlike our long fixed collar bone). This lack of a functioning collarbone allows cats to squeeze their shoulders together through tight openings we'd think were impossible for them to squeeze through.
The Amazing "Righting Reflex"
According to animal experts, a kitten's righting reflex is observable as early as three to four weeks and fully developed at eight weeks.
When a cat falls from a high position they can realign their body in mid-fall and land safely upon their feet. Their inner ear acts as a compass for balance and orientation so they'll always know when they're right side up. Their unique skeletal structure and flexible backbone, as well as their absence of a functional collarbone allows a cat to respond with incredible speed when falling, so it is able to reorient itself in order to safely land. Their low body volume to weight ratio allows them to slow down their speed when falling. They create wind resistance by spreading themselves out somewhat in the manner of a flying squirrel. This action allows the cat to become its own parachute! This doesn't, however, make the cat invincible. One study shows that about 90% of cats that have fallen from tall buildings have survived, though most sustained serious injuries. While one third required life saving treatment, under a third required no treatment at all! Cats that have fallen from 7 to 32 stories were less likely to die than those that have fallen from two to six stories. (Maximum speed will always be 60 mph when a cat falls from 7 stories to 7000 stories.)
So the theories abound. Some say when a cat reaches maximum falling speed (around 60mph) their vestibular mechanism in their ear shuts off and allows the cat to relax. Relaxed limbs are less likely to break than unrelaxed limbs. Also, a greater height allows the cat time to adopt its proper parachute pose!
Amazingly there have been reports of cats falling from a seven story high rise (and even higher) and surviving the fall. This amazing stunt could have possibly brought about that old adage about a cat having nine lives - I'm certain of it!
By Tom Mateo
About the Author
Tom Matteo has been a freelance writer since 1992. He specializes in hardware and software reviews for computers and gaming systems, and occasionally writes about such topics as animal behavior and care. Tom resides in Bethlehem, PA with his wife Tina and his beloved cockapoo, Angel.