A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do cats always land unharmed on their feet, no matter how far they fall?

July 19, 1996

Dear Cecil:

Is it true cats always land unharmed on their feet, no matter how far they fall?

Cecil replies:

I love this question, because (1) it seems completely wild; (2) it nonetheless appears to have some scientific basis; (3) on examination the scientific basis is open to serious question; and — this is the best part — (4) the Teeming Millions figured this all out by themselves. I may be able to retire from this job yet.

Here's the EP version of the story you heard, related to me by AOL user Bmaffitt: "There was a Discovery Channel special on this a while back. The truth is, after a few floors it doesn't really matter [how far the cat falls], as long as the oxygen holds out. Cats have a nonfatal terminal velocity (sounds like a contradiction in terms, but most small animals have this advantage). Once they orient themselves, they spread out like a parachute. There are cats on record that have fallen 20 stories or more without ill effects. As long as the cat doesn't land on something pointy, it's likely to walk away."

You're thinking: no freaking way. But believers trot out a 1987 study from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Two vets examined 132 cases of cats that had fallen out of high-rise windows and were brought to the Animal Medical Center, a New York veterinary hospital, for treatment. On average the cats fell 5.5 stories, yet 90 percent survived. (Many did suffer serious injuries.)

We know cats have exceptional coordination and balance, so maybe that contributed to the high survival rate. One cat, for example, is known to have survived a 46-story fall. (It apparently bounced off a canopy and into a planter.)

But here's the weird part. When the vets analyzed the data they found that, as one would expect, the number of broken bones and other injuries increased with the number of stories the cat had fallen — up to seven stories. Above seven stories, however, the number of injuries per cat sharply declined. In other words, the farther the cat fell, the better its chances of escaping serious injury.

The authors explained this seemingly miraculous result by saying that after falling five stories or so the cats reached a terminal velocity — that is, maximum downward speed — of 60 miles per hour. Thereafter, they hypothesized, the cats relaxed and spread themselves out like flying squirrels, minimizing injuries. This speculation is now widely accepted as fact.

But there's a potential fatal flaw in this argument, which emerged from a discussion on — one can't help but grin — alt.fan.cecil-adams on the Usenet. (In fairness, the objection may have originally been raised on alt.folklore.urban.)

The potential flaw is this: the study was based only on cats that were brought into the hospital. Clearly dead cats, your basic fell-20-stories-and-looks-like-it-came-out-of-a-can-of-Spam cats, go to the Dumpster, not the emergency room. This may skew the statistics and make falls from great distances look safer than they are.

I called the Animal Medical Center to see if this possibility had been considered. The original authors were long gone, so I spoke to Dr. Michael Garvey, head of the medical department and current expert on "high-rise syndrome."

Dr. Garvey was adamant that the omission of nonreported fatalities didn't skew the statistics. He pointed out that cats that had fallen from great heights typically had injuries suggesting they'd landed on their chests, which supports the "flying squirrel" hypothesis.

I suggested this merely meant that a cat landing in this position had a chance of surviving long enough to be brought into the hospital, whereas cats landing in other positions were so manifestly dead that the hospital was never notified. Dr. Garvey didn't buy it, but said this was a matter about which reasonable people might disagree.

We await the formation of a committee of New York doormen to compile global statistics on the fate of falling cats. Meanwhile don't believe something just because it was on the Discovery Channel, or for that matter in the Straight Dope.

Curiosity killed the cat

Dear Cecil:

Back when I was a kid we used to take the cat up on the roof and toss it off. It was just a one-story house, so the cat didn't have far to fall. That little bugger would spread out his arms and legs and glide on down, just like a flying squirrel. He never seemed to mind it in the least. He'd let us drag him up there again and again. It seems they have a natural ability to protect themselves from falls. Now that's science!

Cecil replies:

No, that's stupidity. I got another note telling about some moron who dropped (a) a cat and (b) a chicken out of a Cessna at 800 feet to see what would happen. The cat survived. The chicken didn't. While that might seem to validate the flying-squirrel hypothesis, what it really tells me is that the teenage sadists of the world have gotten the idea that cats are immortal, so anything goes. Nonsense. Let's review the facts:

1. Nobody says that cats will survive any fall uninjured. Of the 132 cats brought to New York's Animal Medical Center after accidental falls, two-thirds required treatment, and half of that number required lifesaving treatment.

2. The flying-squirrel hypothesis may well explain why some cats survive extremely long falls. No one has demonstrated that all cats will survive long falls. On the contrary, from anecdotal accounts we know that at least some cats are killed — the deaths just aren't reported.

Cecil's assistant Little Ed got into a big online argument with a young fellow who was enamored of the flying-squirrel hypothesis. After Little Ed patiently explained the difference between some and all, the young fellow conceded Cecil was right to make point number two above.

"But so what if Cecil was right?" the young fellow said by way of a parting shot. (I'm paraphrasing here.) "Cecil's point was boring. The flying-squirrel hypothesis is interesting."

Fine, it's interesting. The ditz pitching the kitty out of the Cessna thought that was interesting. Just keep your hands off that cat.

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