Cats are the true gymnasts of the animal world. Whether they miscalculated a jump, slid off a table, or tumbled off a perch, they always seem to find a way to stick the landing. This impressive ability to right themselves while falling has been noted for ages, but only relatively recently has science – helped by film and photography – revealed exactly how it's done. Read on to learn all about this genuinely fantastic feline skill.
It's All In The Spine
While falling cats right themselves in a flash, frame-by-frame photography and slow-motion film have revealed each step of the process. The first thing a cat does when falling is determine what's up and what's down. They do that not just with their eyes but also with their inner ears' vestibular systems – something most mammals possess. This is calculated in a split second and then the cat immediately begins turning his or her head. Next up is the incredibly flexible spine – it bends in the middle so the two halves of the body rotate along different axes. This extra flexibility is due to the fact that cats have 30 vertebrae while humans have only 24. Cats' free-floating clavicle bones also help a great deal here. Then the front feet, followed by the hind feet, turn so they're ready for touchdown. The front feet are placed below the face to protect it during the landing. If time allows the cat's body will spread out to increase drag, much like a parachute. When the cat reaches the ground the joints absorb most of the impact. Cats' quick reflexes, flexible bodies, and powerful legs all help pull off this miraculous feat.
It may be counterintuitive but cats that fall from greater heights often fare better than cats that fall from lower heights. It's because the cats have a longer amount of time to right themselves, spread out to increase drag, and prepare for landing. This fact is confirmed by veterinarians who have treated cats with broken legs and other injuries due to falling. Cats that fell from five-story buildings were in better shape than cats that fell from three-story buildings.
Born This Way
People have often wondered if cats are taught this impressive skill or if it's something innate to their feline friends. The answer: they're born with it. Kittens as young as three weeks show signs of this reflex, while many kittens that are just six weeks old have already perfected it. They make human babies look like slouches by comparison.
Don't Try This At Home
While it's true cats land on their feet most of the time, there are exceptions. So please don't drop your cat from a great height to test this all out at home. Instead just rest assured that your cat possesses some truly awesome acrobatic abilities.
By Jed M.