It isn’t uncommon to hear stories about cats surviving falls from more than a dozen floors with no more than non-life-threatening injuries. For comparison, humans are capable of surviving similar falls, but our prospects are much, much poorer than that of our feline companions. This is unsurprising because there are a number of factors that make cats much better at surviving falls than us.
Why Can Cats Survive Long Falls?
For starters, it should be mentioned that cats have much less mass than us. This is important because less mass means less momentum, which in turn, means less force that will be transferred into the falling object when it hits the ground. Due to this, smaller animals are much more capable of surviving falls from great heights than bigger animals. Something like an insect can survive a fall from a skyscraper with no issues whatsoever. In contrast, something like a horse, well, suffice to say that falls from a sufficient height for them have been described as something of a splash because so much more force is transferred into them at the end.
With that said, cats are well-suited for climbing trees, so much so that there are some people who have called them arboreal animals. Whether that term is true or not, it should come as no surprise to learn that being well-suited for climbing trees means that a particular animal comes with adaptations to help them survive falling from great heights. After all, even the best can make mistakes from time to time, meaning that such adaptations would have been very useful for increasing their chances of surviving long enough to have offspring.
Cats are no exception to this rule. For proof, look no further than the fact that cats have not one but two separate strategies for surviving falls, which have been observed by humans on countless occasions. First, when people say that cats land on their feet, that isn’t an exaggeration. Cats have an innate sense of which direction is up and which direction is down, which combines with their considerable flexibility to enable them to twist their bodies around until they are set to land on their feet so long as they have sufficient time to perform said movements. This prevents them from falling in an awkward position that increases their chances of coming to harm, particularly since their long, muscular legs serve as excellent shock absorbers. On top of this, cats will even splay out their legs for the purpose of increasing their surface area, thus slowing themselves down by increasing their drag resistance in the process.
Second, when cats are falling from such a great height that landing on their feet won’t help them much, they will splay their legs further out for the purpose of landing on their bellies. The exact trigger for this second strategy is unclear at this point in time because scientists aren’t exactly eager to start throwing cats off of tall buildings for the purpose of testing something that happens on a semi-regular basis anyways, but it has been speculated that cats can tell when they have reached terminal velocity, which can be summed up as the constant speed that a falling object will reach when its acceleration is counter-acted by the air resistance against it. When this happens to cats, they will splay their legs further out because the increased surface area will mean that the impact is spread out more instead of being concentrated in select locations. As a result, while this position won’t provide cats with anything close to perfect protection from fall-related complications, it should nonetheless increase their chances of surviving falls from a great height.
On a final note, it must be stressed that cats are by no means immune to getting hurt from falling. Yes, they are less likely to get hurt when compared to humans, but falls from a great height will still cause them considerable harm in the form of serious injuries such as chipped teeth, collapsed lungs, and broken ribs. Due to this, cat owners should be careful about open windows and other elements that can increase the chances of such falls happening for their cats because there is no sense to taking unnecessary risks.