In the wild, cats position themselves in elevated areas to survey their terrain. Domesticated cats enjoy the privacy afforded by height. Unfortunately, this leaves cats in danger of hurting themselves should they take a bad step and fall.
Cats can jump about 8 feet and fall the same distance without injury. The higher a cat falls from, the better its chances of avoiding significant injury. Falling from a height gives a cat additional time to prepare itself for landing, reducing the risk of impact damage.
Just because a cat can fall from a height, it doesn’t mean it’s OK. Older cats, in particular, will struggle significantly with impact injuries from falls.
Do Cats Hurt Themselves When They Fall?
Cats often astonish owners by making death-defying falls and getting up as though nothing had ever happened. Obviously, there is always the risk that the cat has injured itself and is hiding its pain. Numerous factors will influence whether a cat will hurt itself when falling:
- Overweight cats are likelier to be injured
- Kittens and senior cats have weaker bones
- Softer landing surfaces will reduce impact and the risk of injury
- Falls from greater heights are less likely to result in injury
The reason cats seem unperturbed by a fall is the strength in their legs. A cat’s legs may look sinewy, but they are surprisingly muscular.
Paw pads are like natural shock absorbers. If a cat lands on its feet after a fall, the impact will be spread evenly over the entire body.
Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?
Cats have a reputation for always landing on their feet when falling. This adds to the mystery of feline falls, making it appear that cats never hurt themselves.
All cats have righting reflex, and most perfect this artform as kittens. When falling, the vestibular apparatus in a cat’s ear instinctively enables the cat to balance itself.
Nature published the first study into the righting reflex of cats in 1894. Experimental Physiology followed this up with a diagram that explained how cats retain such amazing balance. The process is as follows:
- Acknowledgment of falling
- Bending the flexible torso inward, adopting a v-shape
- Tucking the front legs and extending the rear legs to rotate the body
- Tucking the rear legs and extending the front legs to complete a second rotation
- Rolling until a 180-degree turn is made
The cat will do this as many times as necessary to ensure that it lands on its feet. This may not be enough to prevent injury, though. It all depends on how far the cat fell, and its physical condition at the time of the fall.
Falling Off Tables, Closets, And Home Appliances
Cats fall from a height in the home near-constantly, whether by accident or design. However, the height of a closet, kitchen cupboard, or refrigerator is rarely enough to hurt a cat. It can happen, but it’s unlikely.
Healthy cats can leap around 8 feet. By happy coincidence, the ceiling height of the average American home is also 8 feet. This means that a cat can comfortably jump from the floor to the ceiling. The cat can then make the reverse jump, or fall, without experiencing any pain.
Senior cats could be an exception to this rule. According to The Journal of Experimental Biology, cats use multiple hind leg muscles to jump. Many senior cats have weakened hind legs due to degraded cartilage. This can make jumps and falls uncomfortable for arthritic cats.
The more a cat uses these leg muscles, the more pressure is placed on them. This will aggravate arthritis pain in senior cats, making falls from seemingly innocuous heights far more problematic.
If your older cat remains mobile, take precautionary measures against falls. Strategically apply soft landing spaces, such as cushions, around the home. This gives your cat something to aim for if jumping or falling.
Falls from a Second-Floor Balcony
A second-story building is an awkward height for a cat to fall. It’s roughly twice as high as a cat can comfortably jump. This means that the results vary as to whether the cat will be injured on landing.
A healthy cat of average weight will usually be fine. The cat will spread its body to share the impact of the landing. The cat may be a little shaken by the experience, but will likely recover quickly.
Older or heavier cats are likelier to endure injuries. The greater impact and weaker bone structure of such felines will result in breaks and fractures. According to The Journal of Small Animal Practice, breaks to the femur, pelvis, and mandible are common.
This is also all dependent on the cat landing on its feet. If the fall was sudden, the cat might not have time to adopt a righting reflex. In such cases, injury is almost inevitable.
Falls from High-Rise Apartments
When a cat falls from a great height, it enters the realm of high-rise syndrome. This refers to cats falling from tall heights, and the injuries they endure as a result. It may surprise you to learn that cats are likelier to survive falls from substantial heights.
The Journal of the American Medical Association surveyed 132 cats following falls from height. For the study, the average fall was around 5.5 stories. Some fell from a building as high as 32 stories.
Of the 132 cats studied, 90% experienced thoracic injuries (blunt force trauma). Falls from such heights will always be dangerous. Only 37% of these cats required emergency treatment. A further 30% required non-emergency help. 30% required no treatment of all. Of the cats that presented to a vet, 90% survived post-surgery.
Do not take this as proof that cats have nine lives. Cats that died on impact would not have made it into the study statistics. The studies suggest that cats may fare better when falling from tall heights due to terminal velocity.
Feline Terminal Velocity
Terminal velocity is the top speed a falling object drops from a height. If a cat falls from a sufficient height, it will reach terminal velocity. This enhances the cat’s chances of survival and reduces the risk of injury.
Imagine that you are standing at the top of a 10-story building, which is around 100 feet in height. If you were to fall from this building, you would reach a terminal velocity of around 120 mph. You would hit the ground in a matter of seconds.
Cats have a terminal velocity closer to 60 mph. This means that a cat falls at almost half the speed of humans. This gives a cat more time to right itself and land on its feet.
Once the cat reaches terminal velocity, it relaxes its body and spreads its limbs. This has a similar effect to a parachute, slowing the fall further. From here, the cat will instinctively use a righting reflex.
The shock alone of falling from this height is still dangerous. Even if the cat lands on its feet, serious injuries remain a risk. Lower terminal velocity makes cats likelier to survive falls, but it doesn’t make them invulnerable.
Falls from Trees
Falls from trees can be problematic. The cat may fall due to being startled by a sudden noise. If stressed, the cat’s instincts will be blunted. In addition, trees provide fewer steady horizontal platforms for cats to negotiate, making falls likelier.
A cat may chase prey up a tree. Clambering up the tree is easy as the cat uses its claws and momentum to reach heights. If the cat then realizes where it is, it may stay put and await rescue.
If the cat dozes off in a tree, it can lose balance. If it does not wake up before landing, it will not use a righting reflex. Even if it does awaken, it may be groggy, increasing the risk of the cat landing on its back or head.
Falls from trees may be the most dangerous for cats. Your cat may climb to an awkward height. The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery has stated that falls from 7-story buildings are most likely to cause injury to cats.
This height is too tall to jump down from safely, but not high enough to achieve terminal velocity. This makes any falls sudden and high impact.
There is no hard-and-fast rule about how far a cat can fall without getting hurt. It depends on the age and physical condition of your cat. Any height that exceeds 8 feet is dangerous, but falling from greater heights does give a cat more time to adjust to the situation.