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Why do cats always land on their feet?

Asked By

Lily Andersen

School: Port Dickinson Elementary School
Grade: 2
Teacher: Mrs. Shelepak
Hobbies/Interests: Soccer, lacrosse, dance, taking care of my cats
Career Interest: Archaeologist, adventurer

Answered By

Lua Lopez

Research Assistant Professor, Binghamton University
Research area: Evolutionary ecology Interests/hobbies: During my leisure time I do sports. I love climbing and almost any outdoor activity. 

Who has not heard the saying "Cats always land on their feet"? Some people would say that this landing ability is due to cats’ incredible balance, and others secretly think it’s magic. No matter what you think, it is something that has puzzled scientists for a long time. The question is, is it true, or is it just an urban myth? If you look online you can find arguments for both sides. So, as a scientist (and cat owner), I decided to look for science-based sources of information.

Cats have something called the "righting reflex." This allows them to orient themselves while falling to land on their feet. It works through a mechanism they have inside their ears that is used for balance, and it helps them figure out which way is up while falling. In addition, cats have no collarbone, and they have a very flexible backbone, meaning they can correct their position while falling at an incredible speed. Finally, they have very muscular and potent legs that help reduce the impact of a fall. So, if we put all this together, we have an amazingly balanced and agile animal that can sustain pretty high falls.

In fact, there was a study done in 1987 by the New York City Animal Medical Centre that analyzed data from veterinary clinics and showed that most cats that had fallen from multi-story buildings survived the fall. However, 39 percent of the cats from that study required emergency care, meaning that while they do always land on their feet, falling from heights is still a threat. Surprisingly, shorter falls are more dangerous for cats because the shorter the fall, the less time they have to correct their position to land on their feet. Finally, because cats rely on their skeleton and muscular structure, overweight cats can have a problem adjusting in time before they land.

Altogether, if you have a kitty at home, keep him or her away from windows and give him or her a good, balanced diet with lots of exercise, and your cat will live a long and happy life.

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