You’ve probably heard the saying, “cats always land on their feet.” This is true in many cases because of cats’ amazing balancing abilities, says Dr. Elizabeth Cottrell, a veterinarian at the Cat Hospital at Towson in Baltimore, Md.
An old wives’ tale holds that a cat’s sense of balance is in its whiskers. Not true. Instead, the whiskers act as feelers that help cats decide whether they can squeeze through tight spaces.
Built for Balance
Cats enjoy a flexible back and lack a true collarbone. This helps them turn so they’re usually in position to land on their feet, Dr. Cottrell says.
Ear to the Ground
When cats are off balance, their inner ear lets them know. They start righting themselves with their heads then their front feet and body follow behind.
Even with their great balance, cats’ natural curiosity can spell trouble with open second-story or high-rise apartment windows. A fall from even the height of a single story can be fatal, especially if the cat is distracted by chatty birds or other local wildlife.
It’s not uncommon for cats to accidentally fall from high-rises. Amazingly, research shows that in some cases, cats that fall from a height of more than six stories may fare better than those that fall from lower heights. Why? The longer distance offers more time to right themselves. Then they arch their backs, stretch out their feet, and puff up like parachutes to help slow down.
One Lucky Cat
In 2009, a 3-year-old cat named Lucky squeezed through a cracked window and fell 26 stories from a lower Manhattan, N.Y., apartment. Window washers caught the cat’s fall on camera. Lucky lived, and he was treated for a broken lower jaw and a broken toe.
4 Questions with Elizabeth Cottrell, DVM, a veterinarian at the Cat Hospital at Towson in Baltimore, Md.
When a cat doesn’t land on its feet, what’s the cause?
It’s often because they didn’t have time to right themselves. If they fall from a shorter distance, they may not have time to use their flexibility and turn around to land on their feet.
What role do cats’ tails and claws play in their balance?
Tails help cats counterbalance when they’re walking on fences or shelves. But cats born without tails often adapt well and can still walk a thin line. Cats that climb trees use their claws to scale limbs and grip branches as they balance.
Are smaller, lighter cats more graceful?
It depends. Cats meant to be large, like Maine Coons, balance fine. But overweight cats will probably have more trouble balancing. However, some individual cats are just more graceful than others.
Does poor balance mean health issues?
It can. Many cats with inner ear disease will have a head tilt and some will circle because they can’t balance when walking in a straight line. They also may struggle to jump on and off of objects.