In the wild, cats position themselves in elevated areas to survey the terrain. Domesticated cats enjoy the privacy afforded by height. Unfortunately, this leaves cats in danger of hurting themselves when falling.
Cats can jump about 8 feet and fall the same distance without injury. Outside falls are more complicated. The higher a cat falls from, the better its chances of avoiding significant injury. Falls from a height allows a cat time to prepare itself for landing, reducing the risk of localized impact damage.
Just because a cat can fall from a height, it doesn’t mean it should. Older cats, in particular, will struggle with impact injuries from falls.
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Do Cats Hurt Themselves When They Fall?
Cats often astonish owners by making death-defying falls and getting up as though nothing happened. Obviously, there is always the risk that the cat has injured itself and is hiding pain. There are numerous factors that 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 taller heights are less likely to result in injury
The reason cats often 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 also natural shock absorbers. If a cat lands on its feet after a fall, the impact will be spread evenly throughout the body.
Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?
Cats have a reputation as always landing on their feet when falling. This adds to the mystery of feline falls, making it appear that cats never hurt themselves. The higher a cat falls from, the likelier it is to land on its feet.
All cats have righting reflex, and most perfect the artform as kittens. When falling, the vestibular apparatus in a cat’s ear instinctively helps the cat 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 an uncanny 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 the cat’s 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. This is nothing to worry about. The height of a closet, kitchen cupboard or a refrigerator is rarely enough to hurt a cat.
Healthy cats can leap around eight feet. By happy coincidence, the ceiling height of the average American home is also eight 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 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 painful for arthritic cats.
The more a cat uses these leg muscles, the more pressure is placed upon them. This will aggravate arthritis pain in senior cats, making falls from seemingly innocuous heights 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. This will boost your cat’s comfort and confidence.
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 results vary as to whether the cat will be injured on landing.
A healthy cat of average weight will often 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 may not have time to adopt righting reflex. In such cases, injury is almost inevitable. Ensure the cat has not endured significant damage to the head or spine.
Falls from High-Rise Apartments
When a cat falls from a substantial height, it enters the realm of High-Rise Syndrome. This term refers to cats falling from tall heights, and 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 purposes of 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. This does suggest that cats do better from tall heights than mid-range falls, though. The reason for this is terminal velocity.
Feline Terminal Velocity
Terminal velocity is the top speed at which a falling object drops from a height. If a cat falls from 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 ten-story building. This 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 the 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. If the cat lands on its feet, serious injuries also remain a significant risk. Internal bleeding could also be a factor. 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 for cats. The cat may fall due to being startled by a sudden noise. If it is stressed, the cat’s instincts will be blunted. In addition, trees provide fewer steady horizontal platforms for cats to negotiate. This makes falls likelier.
The biggest risk is a cat falling asleep in a tree. The cat may chase prey up a tree. Clambering up is easy. A 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, it can naturally lose balance. If the cat does not wake up before landing, it will not use a righting reflex. Even if the cat does awaken, it may be groggy from sleep. This increases the risk of the cat landing on its back or head.
Falls from trees are arguably the most dangerous of all for cats. Your cat may climb to an awkward height. Most trees are roughly the height of a seven-story building. The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery has stated that seven-story buildings as likeliest to cause injury.
This height is too tall to safely jump down from, but not high enough to achieve terminal velocity. This makes falls sudden and high impact. If your cat is stuck in a tree, it is best to attempt a rescue before it falls.
There is no hard-and-fast rule about how far a cat can fall without getting hurt. It depends on the condition of your cat.
Overall, any height taller than eight feet is potentially dangerous, although taller is better. Cats can survive falls without incident.