Domestic Cats Can Fall From Any Height With a Remarkable Survival Rate

Daven Hiskey 18
Ninja KittyToday I found out domestic cats fall from any height with a remarkable survival rate.  This is, of course, assuming they don’t suffocate- say, if you dropped them from 40,000 feet- and that they land on relatively flat ground (nothing pointy or the like).

This one seems like it shouldn’t be true.  However, it turns out, a typical domestic cat’s terminal velocity is sufficiently low, around 60 mph, that they can absorb the shock of the landing.  This isn’t to say they will absorb the shock without injury; simply that they are more likely to survive the fall than not.

Specifically, according to a study done by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 132 cats falling from an average of 5.5 stories and as high as 32 stories, the latter of which is more than enough for them to reach their terminal velocity, have a survival rate of about 90%, assuming they are brought in to treat their various injuries that may occur because of the impact with the ground.  Of those 132 cats included in the study, about 2/3 required some sort of medical treatment as a result of their fall, and about half of those that required treatment (1/3 of the total cats brought in) would have died without medical aid.

Now, it should be noted, unlike what many reports based on this study state, this DOES NOT imply that cats falling from any height should have a 90% survival rate given proper medical attention.  The average height was only 5.5 stories, which is insufficient for the cats to reach their terminal velocity.  Second, the cats that die on impact are obviously unlikely to be brought into the veterinarian clinic, skewing the sample size.  On the flip side of that, the cats that are uninjured (there are instances of cats falling from as high as 26 stories without any injury) also are not all going to be brought in.  How much these factors would affect that “90%” rate isn’t clear.  Thus, one cannot say definitively that domestic cats should have a 90% survival rate from a fall from any height.  However, this study did present a reasonable enough sample size (132 cats) that the actual number shouldn’t be drastically different than the stated rate.  So while we can’t say “90% survival rate”, at least we can say they have an extremely good survival rate.

Now, if you think that’s strange.  Here’s something even weirder.  The number of injuries a domestic cat has from a long fall actually seems to go down above a certain height, specifically above about seven stories tall.  There are two prevalent theories as to why this is the case.

The first, presented by the veterinarians who did this study, is that cats will tend to tense up and arch their backs while they are accelerating, similar to how they look when they are feeling threatened.  While this form is great for absorbing short falls, it turns out to be a poor choice for a high velocity impact.  Specifically, in these high velocity impacts, being tense like that will drastically increase the cat’s injury rate.  In addition to this, this form will increase the cat’s velocity around 15 or so miles per hour over the estimated average terminal velocity for cats.

Once the cats reach their terminal velocity though, it’s theorized that they relax and assume a more spread-eagle, “flying squirrel”, stance, which in turn reduces their over-all velocity; puts them in a more relaxed body state; and gives a larger surface area to absorb the impact.  While the study offers no direct visual proof of this happening, the types and locations of injuries seen from the cats that would have reached their terminal velocity seem to back up this idea.

An alternative theory is that cats above this height simply die more often or have much more serious injuries and so aren’t brought into the veterinarian clinic at all.  This seems likely enough.  But it should be noted that the average number of injuries of the cats brought in having fallen from 7-32 stories is still less than the average number of injuries, per cat, brought in having fallen under that height.  So while it’s plausible enough that cats falling above this height would die more, having not yet reached their terminal velocity at 7 stories, that still doesn’t explain why the average number of injuries on the cats that were brought in were less.

Cats at around 7 stories should reach a velocity of around 40-45 mph, assuming around 10 feet per story, which is about 15-20 mph off their terminal velocity.  Interestingly though, they should reach their terminal velocity at around 12-13 stories.  In this study, there were numerous cats that survived falls as high as 32 stories and there have been recorded instances of cats falling from as high as 26 stories, that walk away with no injuries at all, which means those cats could have been dropped from 5000 feet and still have been fine, assuming they landed in the same spot and position.

It should also be noted that the vast majority of the cats brought in likely landed on cement.  So it is theorized that the injury rate and severity of injury would go down a bit had they landed on grass covered ground or the like.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

On a separate note, ever wondered how a cat right’s itself when falling?  Well, wonder no more:

Bonus Facts:

  • While there have been instances of cats falling from as high as 26 stories and landing on solid ground, without injury, the actual known record holder is a cat that fell from 46 stories without injury.  However, this cat didn’t land directly on the ground, but rather landed on a canopy, then bounced off it and landed safely.

Expand for References:

Diamond, J. (1988). Why cats have nine lives Nature, 332 (6165), 586-587 DOI:
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18 Comments »

  1. Jared Bond November 11, 2010 at 7:36 pm - Reply

    Wow, I’m going to have to try this out! (Don’t worry Freddie, the higher we go, the safer you’ll be!)

  2. Russell November 12, 2010 at 7:43 am - Reply

    This was probably the result of stimulus funding in part to study cat survival statistics and in part to reduce the feral cat population.

  3. serene November 15, 2010 at 5:09 am - Reply

    omg! i cannot imagine how they conducted the study! how did they make the cat jump!

  4. Chell March 25, 2011 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    @Serene
    They didn’t make the cat jump, they probably dropped the cat. DX

  5. Tony April 27, 2011 at 2:09 am - Reply

    They didn’t make any cats jump. They studied medical records of cats that had been brought to the clinic after falling multiple stories.

    Obviously the cat in the video was dropped, but only about 4 feet, which for a cat is nothing. When my cat was young she would to jump from 5 or 6 feet all the time.

  6. Doug Finley December 22, 2011 at 5:56 pm - Reply

    That link should read (as the Wikipedia article does) “Cat RIGHTING Reflex.” Isn’t anyone literate left?
    -
    There was an evil German scientist, long ago, who dropped cats from various heights to see what happened. I haven’t heard of the experiment being repeated, only statistical analyses like this one.

  7. Dominic June 25, 2013 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Well, ours has just fallen off a 2nd storey balcony – could shoot myself for not noticing what she was up to.

    Just back from the vet who said that, basically, she looks ok but to give it a week to see what may or may not develop.

    Right now she is sleeping on my partner’s chest. Hoping she’ll be fine. These comments do give me hope…. Thanks :-)

    • Alexandra July 19, 2013 at 11:13 am - Reply

      Dominic, she should be fine, my sister’s fell off a 3rd floor balcony and survived fine, and that was like 10 years ago, and she’s still giving us terrors! Poor kitty though, I bet she was in for a fright.

  8. Lynda October 20, 2013 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    My sister’s kitten recently fell 5 stories from her balcony! I found it traumatizing to hear about the free fall. Fortunately, the little kitty is going to be fine, although she has sadly lost the sight in one eye, and has a broken femur. Poor kitty, what a fright! I told my sister that she may get a visit from the ‘kitty protective services’! The kitten is currently racing around the apartment, like nothing happened. I am surprised at the survival rate noted in the article, interesting good news.

  9. Kilyle November 5, 2013 at 5:30 am - Reply

    I am extremely skeptical of the idea that a cat will likely survive a fall “from any height” – even with the limit on terminal velocity. I’ve heard the cat survival study before, and while I’m glad you at least mention the fact that there’s no data on cats who died from large falls, I don’t think you put enough importance on that fact.

    Having a large sample size only gives us the likelihood of the cats surviving if they were alive enough to take to the vet. It gives no data – absolutely NONE – on the likelihood of cats surviving a fall in the first place. Those 132 cats could be from a set of 132, 133, 264, 1320, or even 132,000 cats who fell from high places – so the survival rate could be anywhere from 100% to less than 1 in a thousand.

    Speculating on why cats manage to survive such falls may give a model for how it was possible for ANY cat to survive a fall from so many stories high, but it doesn’t give the kind of model that says “Ah, most cats will survive because they do such-and-such.” Trying to make it sound like they’ve got magic anti-falling powers that kick in at terminal velocity is almost as silly as claiming that terminal velocity makes them spontaneously develop wings.

  10. TIn February 4, 2014 at 9:37 am - Reply

    I think another “study” should be conducted to see how far those who conducted this “study” can fall without resulting in death. Maybe it will prevent those sick freaks from doing a study on how long cats can survive in a microwave oven.

  11. Dr.A.Jagadeesh August 14, 2014 at 4:00 am - Reply

    Wonders of nature. I observed a Cat fall from 3 storied building landing safely.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  12. Sam August 23, 2014 at 3:10 am - Reply

    I’d like to know how a company got away with chucking 132 cats from heights ranging up to 32 storeys and didn’t get collared for animal cruelty.

    I’m with Tln maybe they should be chucked off numerous storeys to see how far they can survive a fall from.

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