Falling Cats

– By Syeda Qudsia, NUST Science Blog

Don’t underestimate the cat.
Source: officialpsds.com

What’s the big deal with throwing a cat off the balcony? Seriously?

The other day, there was a kitten stuck up on the second floor and it really shouldn’t have mattered to me except that it kept following me. Now, I couldn’t let it come to my room.  So, instead of bothering and taking it down two stories to freedom, there was a quicker solution that came into my mind: throw it down the terrace. The problem was, I wasn’t ready to hold the cat and everybody else was like “Naheeeeennn!” on the mere idea of it. Come on! I’ve witnessed cats being thrown off the second floor all my life and never seen anyone get hurt… and they have come back to meet the same fate again and again. Let’s trust nature on this – or let’s trust science.

Well, okay, cats do not always survive the fall… they do get injured, but that’s from falling mainly between the second and seventh story of the building. Usually what happens when a cat falls from a height is this: it lands on four feet, stands up shocked, and goes about, minding its own business.

This is due to the natural ability of cats to adjust their position mid-air, called “righting reflex”. Here’s a small, 8 second video to demonstrate how cats naturally land on four feet:

So, you see, the cat is being held upside down and is let to fall. But as soon as it is left, it begins to “righten” its position. First its head (00:02), then its torso (00:03), finally its rear (00:04), and following all that with arching its back and preparing for the impact (00:05).

Factor number one, that helps cats in this remarkable feat of theirs, is excellent balance maintained by “vestibular apparatus”, which is a fluid-filled organ in inner ear. At 00:02 in the video, it’s actually this thing that has become active and helps the cat decide which way is up and adjust its posture accordingly.

The second feature is its flexible skeleton and higher mobility of the bones in its spine, which is in focus throughout the video.

And then it also matters how good the cat knows its physics (the answer to which is: naturally well :-P), although that’s more relevant for cats falling through distances much more higher than two stories. When a cat reaches its terminal velocity during a fall, it relaxes and spreads out its body, which helps it take the shock better and saves it from getting injured. This why cats falling from higher than 6 or 7 stories have a better chance of surviving and walking away with their intact selves.

There have been accounts of cats falling from 32 stories and living through! Well, we led our cat down and respectably escorted it out the door, but if a cat really is stranded somewhere high up, don’t think twice and throw it down… saves a lot of time.


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