How Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet: Understanding the Perfect Landing

orange cat flying
Steve Corelli
Written by Steve Corelli

Cats make everything they do look interesting—from eating to simply staring at you and then sleeping. One other thing that they do which piques human interest is the fact that they always land on their feet. So, how do cats always land on their feet irrespective of how they started their fall?

Having researched a series of topics on the question, we have come up with something comprehensive for you. That means learning not just about how a cat tends to fall on her feet but knowing every other thing that pertains to the mechanism. That way, you will be able to determine the myths of the process from the truths, so your cat won’t have to get injured because you assumed they would be all right and didn’t take necessary precautions.

By the end of the post, we believe you will be able to mentally visualize what is happening the next time you see your cat land that perfect fall. You will also have garnered invaluable knowledge in the area of techniques involved, and most importantly, exceptions to the rule.

Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?

orange cat standing

Talks of cats always landing on their feet is not just some myth that has been drummed up to increase the street credibility of these amazing creatures. It does happen, and it happens most of the time; however, your feline friend won’t always make the perfect landing. It is all dependent on the conditions that surround the fall.

A cat’s ability to land on her feet is tied to the tendency to right herself to the proper landing position mid-air—something a lot of other animals find very hard to do. The entire process taken from the start of fall to the end will play a factor in whether or not the cat will be able to achieve the perfect landing position.

Cats tend to bungle shorter falls more than they would longer ones because with shorter falls they have less time to adjust their position.

The age of the cat is also an important factor. Very young kittens would not have mastered this act yet so don’t experiment with them. More than experimenting, make sure you keep them away from elevated points in the house if there aren’t any measures in place to protect them against falls there.

If they hit the wrong place when falling, they could end up breaking a limb, which, in worst case scenarios, could lead to disabilities.

See Also: How Many Bones Do Cats Have

How Cats Stick that Perfect Landing

cat rotating

When falling, the best thing to do is to land on the part of the body that can take as much of the shock as possible while causing minimal damage to other parts of the body. Cats come with their instincts, which, according to how their body is designed, inform them of how their feet would be the best landing zone.

The limbs are padded on the insides by joints with the cartilaginous membrane. Even though the cats will still feel the impact of the fall, they surely won’t feel that as much as they would if they had touched down with any other parts of their body.

It is time to examine how it is that a cat would almost always land on her feet when dropped/falling from heights. Before we get into the specifics, you should know that cats have backbones more flexible than the one in humans.

This is made possible due to the presence of more bones in the vertebrae. Aside from that, they also don’t have a collarbone, giving them even more flexibility to twist their bodies.

Also, when the cat is in the air or starts falling, the first thing that kicks into play is their righting reflex. Simply put, this is the cat’s ability to readjust herself during a fall in such a way that she lands on her feet.

Under the reflex package, the first thing the cat needs to do is determine up from down. How else would she know where to plan her descent towards?

The determination of up from down will require either one of two systems: sight or the employment of the cat’s vestibular apparatus. The vestibular apparatus in question are inner hairs in the ear which the cat uses to sense motion in line with gravity, thus deciding where they are being drawn towards (the ground).

When the direction to fall onto has been determined, the following three steps start to occur almost immediately:

#1: Fold Up

The cat will bend herself in the middle, using her mid-point to act as an axis of rotation. She will then rotate the upper half of her body in a different direction to the rear half at the same time.

The rotation of the upper body will be in such a way that the head starts to face where the cat intends to land.

#2: Rotation

Now that the cat has determined the top from the bottom, what is left is making sure her body is aligned in that direction.

The cat begins by tucking in her front legs to reduce the inertia and extend her rear limbs. That gives her enough energy to propel a rotation of the upper part of the body such that the head is facing down as it is supposed to be.

When that has been achieved, the front legs are extended while the rear limbs are now tucked in. The purpose of this is the same as above—to make sure the lower part of the cat’s body is also rotated in the same direction of the ground while reducing rotation of the upper part at the same time.

A logical question to ask would be how the cat would prevent herself from spinning too much, she ends up landing on her back after all that effort. The answer is rooted in simple physics.

Remember the tucking in and extending of limbs? That’s the easy answer.

When the front limbs are tucked in, only the front part of the body will rotate. The rotation of the front will be stopped when the front limbs get extended again. The rear limbs then undergo the same motions.

At the time when the cat feels balanced enough, she stretches out all her limbs. There is not much in terms of rotation that can happen at this point anymore.

#3: Unfold

Now that the cat has re-oriented herself to face the ground, she spreads out her tucked-in limbs for proper distribution of impact.

Even though everything happens very fast, some cats won’t get themselves aligned to the ground at the 180 degrees angle at first trial. The ability to do that right is largely dependent on the flexibility of the said cat and the angular momentum they must attain at the time the free fall started.

Cats will always try the second and third steps multiple times before reaching the ground to ensure they have a very good footing.

With air-righting being the first thing your cat does, she also employs a slew of other tricks to ensure she doesn’t become too worse for wear.

Structurally, the cat is equipped with a small size, thick fur, and light bone structure which all help to decrease her terminal velocity during flight. The cat will then naturally spread out her limbs after she has righted herself in the air, increasing the drag force on her body in the process.

Orienting the body and limbs this way, minimal impact is ensured. The rest of the impact is then set to be evenly distributed across the entire body of the cat rather than concentrated in one place.

One thing you should notice throughout the course of this falling procedure is the omission of the cat’s tail. This caudal vertebrae serve as a rudder in most of the cat’s daily routine and would have thus been expected to play a significant role here.

That is not quite true though. Otherwise, cats born without a tail (such as the Manx) would not be able to re-orient themselves when falling through the air.

Is This Ability Learned or Inherited?

tabby cat jumping

We haven’t seen a single cat mama take her kitten to a high place and then start showing him how to land with ease. However, a large percentage of cats will be able to do this in their lifetime on their own. That has led to the belief in this being an inborn trait for cats. Think of it as an instinct or reflex if you will.

As much as it is a reflex response to falling, we should let you know that cats don’t develop this ability immediately they are born. In fact, it can take up to 4 weeks after birth before the kitten starts showing signs of air-righting. By the 6 – 7th week though, the kitten is sure to have perfected this move.

Can Cats Get Injured in Falls?

cat falling down

Yes! The fact that we said a cat will almost always land on her feet does not mean she cannot get injured in the fall. The reasons for the injury could be diverse.

For example, the minimum height required for righting to occur is about 30 centimeters or 12 inches. Should your cat fall from a height less than that, she won’t have the time to complete all of those motions we have mentioned above.

Studies have linked falls in cats from taller paces to fewer injuries as compared to those from shorter places. Logically, that does not make sense. Shouldn’t the impact from a much higher place be more than that which would be suffered if the cat were falling from a lower height?

Guess which cat had more time to prepare how to stick her landing properly? There you have it!

Preventing Your Cat from Getting Injured in Falls

cat lying on its back

It was this amazing ability of cats’ to survive seemingly fatal falls that made people believe that cats had nine lives, but it doesn’t mean that cats are absolutely impervious to falls. As we have mentioned in the previous section, cats can get injured in a fall.

If you live on higher floors, it is advisable that you keep your windows closed, especially if you’ll be leaving the cat alone at home.

You could proof the windows with nets so you won’t be robbed of good ventilation at the expense of preventing your cat from falling.

Another thing you could do is invest in good cat furniture for your pet. While that is not guaranteed to keep her off the tall cupboards, it would greatly reduce the time spent there. In turn, that would greatly reduce the risk of the cat falling from said elevated space.

When allowing your cat to go outdoors, it would also be advisable to use a carrier or short leash for better safety instead of just letting your cat roam free. Training your cat to avoid shelves, cabinets, and other tall furniture in the house should also be considered.

See Also: How to Keep Cats Off Furniture

In that instance when your cat falls, the first thing to do would be to check her for any signs of pain or discomfort. Notice the height they fell from too. A fall from the bookshelf won’t be as fatal as one from the third floor of a house, even though the cat would have more time to right herself during the fall with the latter.

Note that cats are excellent at hiding their pain and discomfort. Should you feel the place they fell from is too high for comfort, don’t hesitate to put a call through to your vet. They will be in the best place to give you professional advice and maybe schedule a check-up for your pet.

See Also: How to Tell If a Cat Has a Broken Leg

Wrap Up

cat falling upside down

The next time you see your cat sticking that graceful landing while falling from the cabinet, we believe you know what internal effort went into all that show. Have you ever seen your cat fall from great heights? How did he/she come out of it? Let’s hear all about it in the comments.

Before you go, check out our article on how to get a cat out of a tree. Your cat may need your help one day since many cats seem to be rightfully hesitant about jumping out of a tall tree.

About the author
Steve Corelli
Steve Corelli

Steve Corelli is a Pet Nutrition Expert from Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is the author of many nutritional strategies for different breeds and a member of some Pet Food development teams. His Maine Coon Stephan, as you might guess, is always well-fed.