How Do Cats Always Land On Their Feet?
Cats and kittens love to climb to high perches. They want to be on top of the world, literally, in order to see danger coming and to keep track of important cat happenings—like you opening the cat food canister. But this love of heights can get cats in trouble.
There’s a commonly held myth that cats always land on their feet. That doesn’t mean they always land without injury, although they do seem more indestructible than other critters. This talent is one of the reasons cats were held to have nine lives. But just how do they always seem to land on their feet? It’s really a combination of their incredible sense of balance and natural athleticism that keeps them safe.
The cats’ uncanny sense of balance is intrinsically tied to the vestibular apparatus deep inside the ear. These organs provide cats with whisker-fast judgment calls that help them distinguish up from down as well as acceleration information.
The vestibular apparatus—balance organs—consist of a trio of tiny structures called the utricle, saccule, and semicircular canals. They are filled with fluid, and the utricle and saccule fluid contains chalky material that floats in the liquid. The inner surfaces of all three structures are lined with microscopic hairs, and movement of the cat’s head causes the fluid and the floating chalk to brush against the tiny hairs. The sensitive nature of this design mimics whiskers or antennae able to react and adjust to the influences of movement, and that information is communicated to the kitty brain in terms of body position and speed of movement.
Interestingly, cats that lack this inner ear apparatus are still able to land on their feet—but NOT if they are blindfolded. In these cats, it’s probably a combination of both equilibrium and eyesight that allows the falling reflex to function. There is one thing, however, that your cat must have to land on their feet, and, thankfully, all cats do.
Cats have very elastic bodies because—unlike our bodies—muscles rather than ligaments hold their spines together. Your kitty can move her spine 180 degrees, and her shoulder blades are on the side of the body (not the back like in humans), attached to the chest by muscles and not by a collarbone. The absence of the collarbone adds to the cat’s twist-ability. When she falls, the cat uses a series of spine, shoulder and flank contractions to twist in midair and land on her feet.
When she lands, the cat arches her back and extends her legs like shock absorbers to cushion the fall. Even if a cat lands with an “all fours” landing, she could be injured, though. Falls from short distances (like from a child’s arms) may not offer enough distance for the righting mechanism to work. And falls out of apartment windows can result in devastating injuries when kitty lands on all fours, fracturing her legs, pelvis, ribs, and cracking her chin.
Surprisingly, cats survive falls from higher than nine stories with fewer injuries, a phenomenon called Highrise Syndrome. But there’s nothing magical about it. These distances give the cat time to relax, empty her bladder, and “soar” like a flying squirrel with the wind catching the folds of the legs to slow the fall. A spread-eagle landing (instead of on her feet) allows the chest and abdomen to absorb the shock and saves the head and legs from more severe or even fatal injury. Falls from the first through fourth floor aren't as likely to cause serious injuries, perhaps because the cat doesn't have time to reach tremendous speeds.
When Seren was a kitten, she scared me to death playing walk-the-ledge on the outside of the railing on our stairwell balcony. Sure enough, she slipped, and her mid-air kitty contortions were a sight to behold. She landed on the hardwood entry below, in a belly-flop position (thank goodness!) or might have suffered broken legs.
Luckily, clueless kittens sometimes bounce. Maybe that’s another reason we think they have nine lives.