Does a cat have nine lives or are they just good at heights?

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There are countless stories of cats walking away from falls of great heights. Yet why would a cat be able to survive so easily and not a dog? And does this mean I can throw my cat out my ten-story window for fun?

Before we go any further, let me answer that second question immediately. No, no you can not throw your cat anywhere that is just cruel. However many cats would survive such a fall and the answer,  once understood, makes a lot of sense.

A cat has been designed by evolution to survive a pretty high fall. Before cats were domesticated they lived in trees. Scientists say that any animal that lives in trees has the ability to turn the right way up and ensure they land on their legs, a cat is no different. If you have ever seen a cat fall, in a short amount of time they will be able to spin their body to ensure they fall in the correct manner, much like how a piece of buttered bread will always land with the buttered side on the ground (but that is just life mocking you).

In addition to this cats have a fantastic weight to surface area ratio. This means that they reach a lower terminal velocity than most other things. Terminal velocity is the maximum speed something can reach as it falls through a fluid, like air. A cat has a lower terminal velocity because of its large body and relatively low weight, creating drag. A cat is pretty smart too. If you watch a cat fall they will spread out their legs like a skydiver to increase the drag as much as possible.

When a cat lands, they land softly. They don’t keep their legs rigid and this ensures they are unlikely to break any bones in their legs when landing. There have been reports of cats surviving falls from 20 story buildings, something that would kill us in an instant no matter what we did with our body. Yet this is not a reason to take your cat to the roof today.

The cat is changing and many domesticated cats do get badly injured as they are slowly forgetting how to fall from trees. In addition, domesticated cats are usually a little overweight. This additional weight completely throws off the physics and a cat could land a lot harder on the ground. Finally, as with people, some cats are just idiots. You don’t want to throw your cat from a large height thinking it is super smart and it gets distracted by a passing bird. Keep your cat alive and keep it away from tall heights.

In a study of 132 cats falling from heights varying from 5 stories to 32 stories, 90% survive. A cat at 32 stories has sufficient time to reach its terminal velocity, but that speed is so low that a cat can survive. The terminal velocity of the average cat is around 100 km/h so it is still not that slow at all. The study was not completely fair though because a scientist did not take 132 cats and drop them from a height, instead it looked at reports in vet clinics. This means that only cats that were brought to a vet were studied. That is a huge flaw as if your cat did drop from a large height, and died, you would probably not bring it into the clinic. This means a huge element of the study is missing and we can assume the number of cats dying is far larger than the study suggests. Of course, the opposite is also true. If a cat is completely uninjured, it is also unlikely to be brought to a vet.  Either way, the 90% of cats that were reported, were still reported as survivors. That means that they just didn’t die. A lot of these cats that were dropped from incredible heights often suffered injuries, they just lived to tell the tale (or should I say tail…).