Do cats always land on their feet?

Posted by Maggie the Moggie. July 24th 2014.

It is a common myth that cats have nine lives but what about the idea that they always land on their feet? The invincible reputation of felines may come from a cats’ aptitude to move in an agile and swift manner but perhaps the main reason cats seem to survive so many life-threatening situations is because they always seem to land on their feet.

With the recent documentary, The Secret Life of Cats, appearing on our TVs not long ago, our interest in cats’ talent to freefall without damage has been rekindled. So, let’s look at how they do it.

Cat in a tree

The technique

While it may look easy, there is a lot involved in the way cats fall without harm. Firstly, the cat turns its body so that it’s parallel to the ground. It does this by moving its front half a different way to its back half. Meanwhile it sticks out its legs to slow the fall down and allow the body to turn quicker. By using their legs as an air resistant, cats transform themselves into a parachute-like shape and then, as they approach the ground, they extend their claws to ensure they have a grip when they land.
They also flex their back to help absorb the shock of a hard landing.

Gone in a flash

This falling process sounds extremely complicated – especially when you consider it takes place in a split second. However, ethology professor at Cambridge University, Sir Patrick Bateson, says that “it is an amazing operation and cats do it quite automatically.”

One reason cats perform this operation so naturally is that their reflexes develop when they are just three weeks old and The Secret Life of Cats documentary likens their elegant poses to those of ballet dancers.

A cat jumping

Always feet first?

However, if the conditions aren’t right then cats won’t always land on their feet.
Sir Patrick Bateson, who is also the president of the Zoological Society of London, found this out when his own kitten fell behind a wardrobe. There wasn’t enough space between the wall and wardrobe which meant the cat couldn’t perform its usual turn. This resulted in the kitten breaking its pelvis.
Although the kitten has fully recovered, it shows the importance of the turning technique when falling.

Evidence

A fall is so instant that it is almost impossible to see how cats manage to land on their feet most of the time – but new technology has shown the ins and outs of the process for us to see.

In the documentary, cats were filmed with high-speed techniques that showed every manoeuvre cats make to ensure they land on their feet. The series of images were filmed in a studio where the cats fell a 10ft distance onto a crash mat disguised as forest undergrowth with no harm whatsoever.

A real life example of how effective this falling manoeuvre is was demonstrated by a one year old cat that survived a 200ft drop from a nineteenth floor flat in Boston without a scratch!

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