Perhaps no other animal has been so vilified and revered throughout history as cats. Stories about cats are as varied as the cats themselves. From the curse of black cats to the worship of them in ancient Egypt, the myths and truths about cats remain blurred. One of the most commonly known of these "cat facts" is that they always land on their feet. But is this one true or yet another myth?
Like all myths, those concerning cats are based partly in fact. The truth is that cats can land on their feet at an amazing rate. But they do not always land on their feet. Cats can fall and hurt themselves. This most commonly occurs when cats fall from shorter heights that limit their time to right themselves and also with older, less agile cats. Despite this truth, the myth persists due in large part to stories of amazing cat landings. Buzzfeed, for example, reported that a cat survived a fall from over 32 stories, landed on concrete, and walked away unharmed!
Cats do indeed have the uncanny ability to land on their feet. This occurs because of a reflex unique to cats. This reflex helps cats to position their bodies right-side-up so that they land feet-first. The height of the fall and the age and dexterity of the cat determine how well his legs can absorb the shock as they land. Interestingly, veterinarians often report that cats falling from taller heights often fare better than those falling from low heights simply because of the time needed for the righting reflex to do its job.
The righting reflex kicks in as soon as the cat begins to fall. He will shift his balance and rotate his head until he's facing the right way. Then he positions his body for impact. The spine will arch. Its front legs will be placed in front of the face to minimize the potential for a head injury. Back legs brace for impact. This unique position makes the cat's fall more like a parachute, with its body slowing the fall, righting itself, and then the legs taking the greatest impact.
The anatomy of cats also helps. They have flexible backbones with 30 vertebrae – six more than humans. And the cat's vestibular system, which tells a mammal where their body is in space, is highly attuned whether they are falling, walking or running. The righting reflex and these unique anatomical features are present at birth, so even kittens as young as six weeks of age can survive falls that would be painful for people.
While the reflexes and anatomy of a cat protect them in many instances, that does not mean that cat owners should not still take precautions. If you live in a multi-story building, make sure that any open windows have screens. Also, teach children that cats can still get hurt, and teach them how to properly care for their furry feline friend. Finally, keep your smartphone handy to catch your cat making some amazing landings!