Do cats have an extraordinary ability to survive falls from great heights?

The latest episode of the always interesting Radiolab covers a study on the terminal velocity of falling cats. (Seriously.) The abstract of the original paper (“High-rise syndrome in cats.” J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1987 Dec 1;191(11):1399-403.) doesn’t do the subject justice at all, so I’ll skip my standard presentation.

Sciencejunkies.com delivers the goods:

The regularity with which cats fall from high places resulted in the coining of the phrase in 1976 “Feline High Rise Syndromeby Dr Gordon Robinson. In 1987 two veterinarians, Drs. Wayne Whitney and Cheryl Mehlhaff of the Animal Medical Centre in Manhattan conducted a study on Feline High Rise Syndrome, the results of which were published in the Journal of American Veterinary Medicine include the following:

  • Of the 115 cats who were brought into the Medical Centre having sustained a fall of between two and thirty two stories 90% survived;
  • 10% of the cats which fell between 2-6 stories died;
  • Only 5% of the cats which fell between 7-32 stories died – the doubling of the survival rate as the height increased can be accounted for by the effects of terminal velocity;
  • The most common injury following a fall is nose bleeds.

All earthbound falling objects (including cats) will accelerate only up to a certain speed known as terminal velocity at which point air resistance becomes strong enough to counter-balance gravity.  For falling humans terminal velocity is around 130 mph but it’s less than half that speed for a plummeting pussycat.  Once terminal velocity is reached, the sensation of falling diminishes.  The cats are thought to relax once this happens causing them land in a better position and explaining why falls from higher floors seem to be more survivable.

More from the 1989 New York Times coverage:

But after terminal velocity is reached, they said, the cat might relax and stretch its legs out like a flying squirrel, increasing air resistance and helping to distribute the impact more evenly.

If you want to learn more about our feline friends, I recommend this book. It’s another great read from the guy who wrote this book.

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