Curiosity can lead us cats to some pretty great heights. We like to climb trees and sneak along tall bookshelves. Sometimes we might have a bumpy landing, but more often our amazing cat reflexes help us land on our feet.
Like my fellow felines, I’ve been using my reflexes to fall on my feet ever since I was about three weeks old. But even I wasn’t sure exactly how this worked or why it doesn’t work all the time. I decided to visit my friend Matt McCluskey, a physicist at Washington State University, to find out more about it.
At first I thought the answer to your question might have to do with our tail. I suspected that as cats fall through the air, the tail helps us find balance. But it turns out cats without tails can land on their feet, too. There’s a little more to it.
McCluskey and I came across this fact in a study from a scientist in London who investigated your very question more than half a century ago. The scientist slowed down pictures of falling cats and observed their movements. He found that the cats landed in a very particular way. He published an article about it in New Scientist called, “How does a cat fall on its feet?”
Looking at the pictures of falling cats, he found that we first use our sharp ears and eyes to help us figure out which way is up. Our head, the lighter end of our body, twists one way. Then the heavier end of our body, the rear, follows. We use this movement to try to maneuver our bodies back to normal and brace for landing. Scientists call it the air-righting reflex. It’s what helps us go from free falling to feet on the floor, often in less than a second.
Our flexible spine and lack of a collarbone also make it possible for us to arch our backs in mid-air. We can arch our backs when we feel threatened, when we stretch, or to help us land after our body twists. Our arched backs help stabilize our bodies, preventing them from rotating, just before landing. McCluskey explained that even though our tails aren’t fully responsible for helping us land on our feet, they do help us be more stable upon landing.
There are actually so many cases of cats falling out of windows that veterinarians have a name for it: high-rise syndrome. Some researchers have found that cats who fall from greater heights have a better chance of landing on their feet than cats who fall shorter distances. It might be because they don’t have enough time to go through all the different movements that help them stick the landing. Sometimes we stumble. Sometimes we land in style. It’s all feline physics.