Cat climbing on window
You’ve probably heard that cats always land on their feet. This is true in many cases because of cats’ amazing balancing abilities, says Dr. Elizabeth Cottrell, DVM, a veterinarian at the Cat Hospital at Towson in Baltimore, Maryland. However, a safe and graceful landing is not guaranteed.

Here are six surprising facts about our four-legged acrobats:

Myth Buster

An old wives’ tale holds that a cat’s sense of balance is in her whiskers. Not true. Instead, the whiskers act as feelers that help felines decide whether they can squeeze through tight spaces. They also help direct a cat’s mouth for delivering a neck bite to prey, especially at night. Whiskers are also used to sense air movement and help felines detect if someone (or something) is coming.

Built for Balance

Cats enjoy a flexible back and lack a true collarbone. This helps them turn, so they’re usually in position to land on their feet, Dr. Cottrell says. When cats fall back-first, they twist around, so their front end is first with hips and back following. The front legs touch the ground first, but all four legs absorb the shock. The tail helps realign her legs and body as she falls, keeping the cat level.

Ear to the Ground

When cats are off balance, their inner ear lets them know. They start righting themselves with their heads, and then their front feet and body follow behind. This body-righting reaction is present at birth, but the air-righting reaction — a cat’s ability to right itself in midair before landing — takes four to six weeks to mature. Meanwhile, their ability to balance on a narrow plank may not be fully developed until 10 to 12 weeks after birth.

High-rise Acts

Even with their great balance, cats’ natural curiosity can spell trouble with open second-story or high-rise apartment windows. A fall from even the height of a single story can result in serious injury. And experience plays a role: The younger the cat, the greater the chance she will be distracted by chatty birds or other wildlife.

Furry Gymnasts

It’s not uncommon for cats to accidentally fall from high-rises. Amazingly, research shows that in some cases, cats who fall from a height of more than six stories may fare better than those who fall from lower heights. Why? The longer distance offers them more time to right themselves. Then they arch their backs, stretch out their feet and spread their limbs out, so the skin catches the air, like a parachute, to help them slow down.

One Lucky Cat

In 2009, a 3-year-old cat named Lucky squeezed through a cracked window and fell 26 stories from a Manhattan apartment. Window washers caught the cat’s fall on camera. Lucky lived, and he was treated for a broken lower jaw and a broken toe.

4 Questions With Dr. Elizabeth Cottrell, DVM, a Veterinarian at the Cat Hospital at Towson in Baltimore, Maryland

Q: When a cat doesn’t land on its feet, what’s the cause?

A: It’s often because they didn’t have time to right themselves. If they fall from a shorter height, they may not have time to flex and turn around to land on their feet.

Q: What role do cats’ tails and claws play in their balance?

A: Tails help cats counterbalance when they’re walking on fences or shelves. But cats born without tails often do fine because the signals in their spinal cord are fully functional, so they can still walk a thin line. Cats use their claws to scale tree limbs and grip branches, helping them maintain balance.

Q: Are smaller, lighter cats more graceful?

A: It depends. Cats meant to be large, like Maine Coons, balance fine. But overweight cats will probably have more trouble balancing. However, some individual cats, just like people, are just more graceful than others.

Q: Does poor balance mean health issues?

A: It can. Many cats with inner ear disease will have a head tilt, and some will circle because they can’t balance when walking in a straight line. They also may struggle to jump on and off objects. Other reasons for poor balance include problems in the brain or in the spinal cord.

An Important Safety Reminder

Although they are known for landing on their feet, it’s important to remember that cats, especially kittens who haven’t developed the sense of balance that older cats have, can injure themselves if they are dropped by humans or fall from chairs and other household objects. Don’t assume that your kitty will always land on his feet — no matter how acrobatic she appears.  

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