Cats are remarkable creatures with exceptional, natural agility and a perpetual state of preparedness for both hunting and defense. Unless you overfeed or under-stimulate your own, even a housecat will maintain relatively peak form throughout their life. It’s accepted (though slightly inaccurate) wisdom that cats always land on their feet, but how they survive considerable falls has captivated imaginations for decades, and one detail turns even more heads: Cats are more likely to trot off unscathed by falls from crazy high heights than from moderate ones. It’s difficult for researchers to study this phenomenon because they’re not present when cats do randomly fall from such heights and it would be far from ethical to recreate these conditions in a lab, so our current understanding is limited to theory, but such is most science. Before we dive into exactly how cats survive extreme falls, let’s first tackle smaller falls.
The 3-foot rule
When a skittish cat leaps from your arms in protest, you can reasonably assume she’ll land on her feet regardless of the insane position from which she wriggled away. This is because you were (most likely) holding her at least 3 feet from the ground. From this height, a cat is almost always able to right itself by twisting the front half of the body to the proper orientation and allowing the back half to follow before hitting the ground. Sounds simple, but don’t expect to be able to replicate this on your own. Cats can thank three key features for the ability to pull of this feat: the vestibular apparatus in those adorably big ears helps them quickly orient toward the ground from almost any position, their lack of a collar bone helps them get the front half into position quickly, and their hyper-flexible spine twists the rest of the body into place with ease. You have none of these features, so keep your feet on the ground. Kitty, however, is free to climb her favorite giant cat tree and doze off without fear of injury from a fall.
But what if she falls from under 3 feet?
Good question. It’s true that your cat may not have enough time to twist into proper position from a lower fall, but she’s still likely to land well. Unless you’ve intentionally dropped her in a void (and, um, why would you?), she will have fallen from something, and she will usually be able to either cling to a surface with her killer claws (which should never, ever be removed) until she can adjust, or will be able to kick off something like a wall or ledge, buying her more space and time to right her body. Tumbles from the top of low cat furniture or shorter cat towers will rarely result in a trip to the vet.
Super, but what about second-story windows?
A good deal of “fall” concerns from fretful cat parents result from rooftops or second-story windows, but it’s important to realize that most of these incidents are not falls, but leaps. In the majority of these cases, your cat is fine, because he was already oriented properly and knows how to arch his back and shift his weight during impact to successfully absorb shock without injury. The same is generally true even for an unplanned dismount, as he’s well above the 3-foot threshold. Provided the ground beneath him is somewhat flat and clear of debris, there’s little reason for concern here.
Now it’s getting interesting. A fall from the height of the next few stories will have the same result as a second-story fall but, as the stories continue to mount, we start to approach the danger zone. From roughly 5 stories to 9 stories, your cat suffers the most potential for injury from the fall (ignoring other factors, like what’s on the ground beneath them). The mind-boggling piece of this puzzle is that, once the height reaches above nine stories, the daredevil cat is back to a zone of relative safety, and this range can extend up to falls beyond 20 stories, with one well documented incident reaching 32 stories.
Now we’ve returned to our starting point, where we had to acknowledge that research is limited here for obvious reasons. Our best theory, though, relies on terminal velocity, which is the speed at which a falling object stops increasing. For humans, that speed is around 120 mph but, for cats, it's only about 60 mph. Many cats will reach this speed falling from a height around 7 stories, with almost all reaching it by 9 stories, which means a cat falling from this height or more will no longer speed up, and the average cat should never hit the ground at more than 60 mph.
Okay, but why is this better than falling from a lower height with less velocity?
Because cats are chill. It appears that cats can detect the moment they reach terminal velocity and, as their speed stabilizes, so too does their behavior. At this point, a cat’s body seems to relax. It may sound absurd that reaching maximum speed causes kitty to find a moment of zen, but it’s evolutionary genius. You’ve already been told that you should relax your body before impact rather than brace yourself, but you’ve likely found this difficult to put into practice as you’ve fallen from a bike or as your car approached a wall. While your emotions took control and stiffened your limbs, a cat’s survival instinct will relax its body and leave it in the best condition for impact (keep this in mind next time you accuse your hungry cat of being too emotional!). But it gets even better.
While this is the hardest part for researchers to prove, it appears that cats actually slow their fall from this point onward. Once terminal velocity is reached and the body relaxes, cats often adopt a position similar to a flying squirrel, theoretically increasing wind resistance and slowing their fall. From here, it’s fairly easy to understand that more time slowing down should lead to a safer landing, and potentially helps explain why falls from greater heights tend to yield fewer injuries or deaths. The physics behind this are obviously much more complicated than this supremely simplified explanation and, if you are so inclined, you can dig into some sample calculations here. For the rest of us, it’s important to understand one critical point: There’s a limit to this magic. Cats are not invincible and will not survive falls from the roofs of skyscrapers or from airplanes any more often than a person will. And even though we now have some small understanding of why cats are surviving falls from crazy heights, we should still protect our housecats by not leaving windows open or allowing them to lean against weak screens, even on first-floor windows. While height itself may not always pose much of a threat to our kitties, objects on the ground can cause broken bones and chipped teeth, and indoor cats who suddenly find themselves outdoors may run and become lost. A cat’s apparent ability to survive incredible falls is a bit of fun trivia we want to learn but never put to practice.