Filmmakers for the BBC's new show, Life In The Air, photographed an African caracal falling headfirst from a tree limb and landing on all four paws on the ground several feet below. This might be the most beautiful cat video you've ever seen online, and it's certainly one of the most interesting.
So How Do Cats Land On Their Feet?Cats come with invisible landing gear already installed. A vestibular apparatus in their inner ear acts as a compass, so they always know right side up.
It's this "aerial righting reflex" that helps them reflexively correct their course when they fall so their feet are in position to touch down on the ground first.
The righting reflex begins to appear at three-four weeks of age. By six weeks, it's fully developed and ready to kick in and parachute Kitty to a soft landing if she tumbles off a table or misses her mark trying to go over a fence.
It works because cats have unusually flexible backbones and no functional collarbones. You can see it in action in the BBC's slow motion video of the caracal falling from the tree limb headfirst. He quickly begins to arch his back, twisting and bending near the head and tail. His flexible spine lets him rotate his front and back ends in different directions at the same time.
Since the front of his body rotates clockwise while falling backward and his back is turning in the opposite direction, he's able to push against himself and bring his legs close to his chest. That makes the front of his body spin faster, causing his spine to twist. As his spine twists, he swings his front legs around to prepare for landing. Gracefully. On all four feet.
Watching him fall is amazing, and I have to admit that I watched the video several times.
A 1987 study by veterinarians at the Animal Medical Center in New York showed that 90 percent of cats who fell from tall buildings survived, although many had serious injuries. The ones who were most likely to have serious injuries or not survive were the cats who fell from heights of just one-six stories.
But They Can't Always Twist And Turn
Why are cats who fall from greater distances more likely to have less serious injuries? One theory is that their aerial righting reflex has more time to kick in, providing a softer landing. Another is that after they reach a maximum downward speed, they relax and spread themselves out, much like flying squirrels.
And cats aren't the only ones who can do this. Primates, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats and some lizards have a similar aerial righting reflex.
I'm glad I now understand how my cats' invisible landing gear works, but I hope they'll never use it. If they jumped or fell off our third floor balcony, they'd probably make a soft landing on the grass and stroll off into the woods. But even cat landing gear can malfunction, so I'm going to request that they continue using the stairs when they want to go out. Granted, it takes longer. But it's a lot safer, and we won't have to worry about broken bones.
Don't Try This At Home
A collar is essential
for your cat's safety.