Pet Articles

Cat Jumps off Building

Currently, there has been no specific group of researchers that have determined by controlled experimentation exactly which heights cats can fall from before death is almost absolute. Mainly, this is because it would be completely inhumane to systematically throw cats off buildings. Nonetheless, two veterinarians who worked at an emergency veterinary clinic in New York City were in the perfect positions to write an article in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association about this hot topic. This is because New York City is a place rampant with high-rise buildings and it is a common incident for cats to fall off buildings at varied levels.

In the report, there was a 90% survival rate of the 132 cats that the two veterinarians had examined. The average falling height was 5.5 floors. From the data collected from the cats admitted into the emergency clinic, they observed that the average number of bones broken and the severity of injuries increased proportionally to the number of floors the cats had fallen from. The disparity in their observations was that cats that had fallen from the seventh floor or higher seemed to suffer from less injuries. Certainly, this disparity could be due to the fact that only the cats that survived the immediate fall were admitted into the emergency room. It must be emphasized that this was not a controlled experiment. Rather, it was an observation from a data set. Yet, there may be a slight truth in the observation due to an innate “righting reflex” that cats possess.

Scientists have reviewed the motion of cats landing from a fall through slow motion video feeds. They have concluded that cats certainly have a righting reflex, in which they systematically orient their bodies to prepare for impact. This flawless innate ability is important for the survival of cats since their giant ancestors hunt on and above the ground. Domestic cats, like their giant counterparts, have a remarkable sense of balance, agility, and ability to spring up onto high levels and land from them. All these attributes are also made possible by the flexible nature of the cats’ joints in their limbs and vertebrae.

So what is the cat’s systematic righting reflex? When a cat falls from a high level, it immediately orients its head in the right direction. Meaning, if it were upside-down, it will turn its head in the right-side-up orientation. This happens due to innate orienting nervous mechanisms in the eye and inner ear, very much like how you would know you were upside down if you were somehow suspended in the air. The re-orientation of the head brings the forequarters also in the right-side up orientation. Next, the spine twists in response to the re-orientation and eventually, the hind quarters are similarly aligned. In addition, the tail of the cat acts to balance and propel the body as the cat re-orientates itself. Finally, the cat will hunch its back in anticipation of impact, which also helps to dissipate the force of landing. The soft cushions of its foot-pads also protect against the impact of landing.

How does this help a cat falling from high stories? One important physical attribute that domestic cats have is that they are light. A domestic cat at terminal velocity during a free fall is considerably less heavy than a man. In addition, when a cat falls from higher levels it would have more time to complete re-orientation from the righting reflex in preparation to land, than if it fell from a lower level. After it has re-oriented itself and if it had the opportunity to reach free falling at terminal velocity, it will also start to splay its legs, adding to the drag which helps to slow it down. During free fall, it would also start to relax, which causes them to suffer less injuries than if they experienced impact with tensed muscles (think about keeping your knees and legs rigidly straight and falling from a distance).

Why then, do cats jump from high-rise buildings? Many of us who have played “chase the object that is tied to a string” with cats, have noticed how much a cat can be fixated on an object of interest. Sometimes, it almost seems as though they are compelled to pounce on it. Similarly, cats watching birds, or moving cars from an elevated level may become so fixated on the object that they may either lose their balance, or decide to pounce off the building.

In conclusion, cats have a higher chance of suffering less severe injuries if they have opportunity to perform their righting reflex. Achieving free fall seems to help, but that is not a guarantee that the cat will not be injured at all, or that it will not meet with another unfortunate event if it does land alive. The bottom line is that we should not depend on the “many lives” that our cats are reputed to have. Instead, we should be more proactive in protecting them from accidental falls from high-rise buildings.

By Serene Lai – writer

One Response to this Article, So Far

  1. Avatar Rowena says:

    Unfortunately we think our neutered male cat(13) was involved in a territorial dispute up the back yard. He finished up on the garage roof, which is pitched & must have been backed right up onto the gable. We found him after he had died & probable been dead for about 8 hours witha broken leg above the joint. We are now waiting to see if one of the local cats tries to claim ownership of the yard.
    Certainly in this scenatio he would not have had time to set himselfup to land. There were no other visible injuries & he had had a clean bill of health last week.He was not a tree climber at all, so it would only have been due tointeraction with another cat that he would have been at a height, which he was the last time he had been brought in from one of these.
    So it would seem thay can fall from a fairly low height & have terminal injuries.

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