Do Cats Always Land On Their Feet?
Dr. Joyce Ashamalla
Dr. Joyce Ashamalla is the managing partner at Hinsdale Animal Hospital with Kremer Veterinary Service, as well as a partner at CARE Animal Emergency Hospital. She received her BS in Animal Sciences from the University of Illinois- Champaign Urbana, where she also completed her Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine in 2007. She is AO certified, USDA-APHIS accredited, and is a member of the CVMA, ISVMA, AVMA.
We’ve all seen the hilarious cartoon where the cat jumps up to the ceiling after being frightened by the bully dog, only to fall and stop midair to right herself and land on her feet. The cartoon version of this amazing skill may seem impossible from a physics standpoint, but in reality, it is very accurate because cats can usually land on their feet, no matter how their body is positioned during a fall. The official term for this behavior is called the cat righting reflex.
Why Do Cats Always Land On Their Feet?
The ability for a cat to land on its feet after a fall is really an amazing spectacle to witness. This skill begins to develop in a kitten at around 3-4 weeks of age and is fully functional by 7 weeks. During a fall, the first thing a cat will do is determine up from down either with her eyes and/or the inner ear, called the vestibular apparatus. They can twist their bodies to such a degree that they will face downward without altering their angular momentum. There are a number of steps a cat has to take to right herself during a fall:
• They have to bend in the middle portion of their bodies such that the front half of their torso rotates on a different axis than the back section does.
• The moment of inertia is reduced on the front of the body by tucking in the front legs. The rear legs are stretched out to increase the moment of inertia on the back part of the body. This allows the animal to rotate her front more as the rear half rotate less, in the opposite direction.
• The final step in this feat of acrobatics is that kitty will then extend her front legs out, while at the same time tucking in the rears, which allows the back section to rotate further, while the front half turns much less and in the opposite direction.
The Concept Of Terminal Velocity
The design of a cat’s body also plays an important role in her ability to right herself. Average, domestic house cats are smaller in size and their bones have a very strong, but light structure. Cats also have a very flexible backbone and nonfunctioning collarbone (clavicle). In addition, the animal’s coat slows her down, which decreases her terminal velocity. Terminal velocity is defined as the fastest speed an object will attain during a fall. A cat of average size will achieve a terminal velocity of around 60 mph. As a comparison, a human falling can reach a terminal velocity of over 120 mph. The less terminal velocity a falling object has will be an influence on the force of impact.
Fall Survival Study
A very interesting study was conducted in the 1980s regarding the survival rates of cats after falling a very high distance. The study, conducted in New York City, found that cats who fell from heights between 7 to 32 stories were much less at risk of being killed than cats who fell from only 2 to 6 stories in the air. A couple of reasons for this result is that the cats falling farther had much more time to right themselves as compared to the lesser falls, and the additional drag caused from their fur and bodies slowed them down at the higher altitudes once terminal velocity was achieved.
Cats are great animals in so many ways, but their ability to right themselves and land feet first after a fall is nothing short of incredible. Take the time to watch some slow motion films of cats in the righting process and you will be amazed at the grace and speed in which they can accomplish this maneuver. The feat of landing on their feet is really something to behold!
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