In many ways, cats appear to defy the laws of physics. You've probably seen those funny videos of cats standing on car door handles, squeezing under doors, and jumping insanely high distances.
Flipping over mid-air and landing on their feet from a fall is another baffling thing our feline friends do. But is it true that cats always land on their feet? How and why are cats able to do this? Let's explore.
Do cats really always land on their feet?
Short answer: no, cats actually don't always land on their feet! Healthy cats are more likely to stick the landing compared to overweight cats or those with coordination issues. Here's why.
The Root of the Behavior
Scientists have studied "the falling cat problem" since the early 1800s. (Fun fact: the righting reflex is still helping scientists figure out how astronauts can turn around in zero-gravity!)
A cat's ability to turn while falling so they land on their feet is called the "righting reflex". Cats aren't technically born with the righting reflex — it develops as they grow. Some kittens can right themselves at the age of 3 weeks.
One study found that blind kittens develop the righting reflex normally. That's because it has little to do with sight and more to do with the vestibular system, which helps cats maintain their balance. There are two main components of the vestibular system: the vestibular apparatus, located in the inner ear, and a network of nerves in the medulla, located at the base of the brain and the top of the spinal cord.
The vestibular apparatus contains fluid and special receptors that connect to nerves leading to the medulla. When a cat turns their head, the fluid in their inner ear shifts. The receptors in the vestibular apparatus pick up this change in position and send signals to the brain, letting it know which way the head is moving.
So when a cat jumps or falls, the vestibular apparatus tells the brain to compensate for the change in position by twisting their body, tucking and extending their paws, and rotating their tail.
Cats aren't the only animals with this reflex. Guinea pigs, rabbits, and even some primates can right themselves to land on their feet. However, the reflex works differently in other species.
Encouraging the Behavior
Because the behavior is a reflex, there's nothing you need to do to encourage it. Although cats often land on their feet, they can still sustain serious injuries if they jump or fall from significant heights. If you live in a high-rise apartment building or multi-story house, keep windows closed to protect your cat.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Even though the vestibular system is primarily responsible for the right reflex, there are a few more reasons why cats land on their feet.
A cat's weight can determine how likely they are to stick a landing. Overweight cats are less likely to land on their feet. They may not be able to move quickly enough to rotate fully. The same is true for cats with arthritis and coordination issues.
Cats evolved to climb trees and jump long distances. Such activities make them more susceptible to falls from great heights. It's no wonder why they evolved to land on their feet!
As fascinating as this phenomenon is, please don't drop your cat to see the righting reflex in action! This will cause unnecessary discomfort and stress.
Plus, just because a cat lands on their feet doesn't mean they land unharmed. Interestingly, one study found that cats who fell from heights of up to 7 stories were more likely to sustain injuries compared to cats who fell from 30 stories! This is due to the way their body responds when they reach terminal velocity — but that's a topic for another article.