Life's Little Mysteries

Why Do Cats Land on Their Feet?

The short answers is: If you had four feet and you were falling, wouldn't you try to land on them? In fact, the science behind how cats land on their feet is very complex. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Cats make it look so easy: leaping or falling from some high shelf or piece of furniture only to land gracefully on all four feet.

But there's some complicated feline effort that goes into falling with such style.

Cats have a highly-tuned sense of balance and have very flexible backbones (because they have more vertebrae than humans), which allows them to twist their bodies around to right themselves when they fall — an innate ability known as their "righting reflex."

When a cat jumps or falls from a high place, it uses either its sight or its vestibular apparatus (a balance system located in the inner ear) to determine up from down, and then rotates its upper body to face downward. Its lower body follows suit.

Even kittens can fall without fear, as most learn to master the skill by the time they're just 7 weeks old.

Cats are also helped in falls by their small bodies, light bone structure and thick fur, which decrease their terminal velocity, thus softening the impact. Some cats will also "flatten" out their bodies, in parachute fashion, to create more resistance to air to make them fall more slowly.

If you have a cat, be careful about opening windows though, as a bird or squirrel can easily distract a cat enough to cause them to lose their balance — cats can still be injured in a fall, even if they do land on their feet. Shorter falls, from one or two stories, can be riskier than higher falls because the cat may not have time to right themselves.

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Live Science Staff
For the science geek in everyone, Live Science offers a fascinating window into the natural and technological world, delivering comprehensive and compelling news and analysis on everything from dinosaur discoveries, archaeological finds and amazing animals to health, innovation and wearable technology. We aim to empower and inspire our readers with the tools needed to understand the world and appreciate its everyday awe.