Who Says Cats Always Land on Their Feet?

Well, everyone, really. Now, even science says so! It’s common knowledge among those who have had the pleasure of a feline friend (or two or three) hanging around that cats tend to land on their feet no matter what. We have all seen a cat fall little more than a few inches and still manage to flip around somehow and get his feet underneath him where they belong. Have you ever wondered how they do it?

Kitten on Branch


Well over 100 years ago a group of French students wondered the same thing. They set an experiment to determine exactly what super powers cats hold that allow them to perform this agile trick nearly every single time they fall. Over the course of the study, the students gently dropped select kitties from different heights, taking pictures in rapid succession while the cats were falling. These images functioned as a slow-motion video of sorts, allowing the students to observe the cats righting themselves. This same type of study was observed again in London years later.

The Righting Reflex

So how do they do it? In short, something called the “righting reflex”. Cats have this reflex the same as people have the reflex to kick a leg when the doctor hits you with that littler hammer (ouch!). To begin, the cat will use his sensitive eyes and ears to determine which way is up. Once he knows where to aim, the righting will begin at the head and move down to the rest of the body. After he’s turned his head toward the prize (the ground), he will pull his front feet in tight and begin to spin the top half of his body. Finally, he will pull his rear legs in to complete the rotation with his bottom half, before stretching his legs out once more and arching his back to ensure all 4 feet hit the ground before anything vital, like his head.

What Could Go Wrong?

Of course, just because a cat has this ability, doesn’t mean he can fall from just any height without consequence. While cats are quite fast with this reflex, it has been determined with these photographic studies and other slow-motion videos that if the fall is one foot or less, the cat just doesn’t have the time needed to complete the rotation and can fall on his side. Luckily a fall from that height isn’t likely to hurt. However, veterinarians have coined the term “high-rise syndrome” for an injury a cat suffers from due to a fall from a high place. These injuries can be anything from a broken leg or jaw to a head injury, or worse. 

While it’s difficult to say how far of a fall a cat can survive, one thing is certain – if it happens, the faster kitty gets to the veterinarian, the better the chance at a full recovery. If your cat falls from somewhere higher than a second-story window, or if he falls from any height and isn’t behaving normally for any reason afterwards, make sure you take him in for an exam as fast as possible!

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