The myth that cats have nine lives is closely tied to their ability to land on their feet and avoid certain doom when jumping from impressive heights. But the truth is that there is a scientific reason for how cats can land on their feet (and look so graceful doing it). "Cats are climbers. They climb both for protection from other predatory animals as well as to give them a vantage point for hunting," explains Kimberly Huston, DVM, program director of veterinary technology at Kent State University, Tuscarawas Campus. "Because of this need to climb, cats also needed to learn how to fall without severely injuring themselves. Their balance is fantastic, but mistakes—fights between other cats, or even the occasional love spat—can cause falls."
To learn more, we asked Dr. Huston for the science and physics behind this feline phenomenon.
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Cats' Bodies and Physical Instincts
If you have ever seen a cat leap from the top of a cabinet to a perfect landing, then you know the awe that it can inspire. Cats make it look so easy—and for them, it's a built-in ability. Dr. Huston says that this is the result of a combination of physiology, anatomy, and physics. It also has something to do with your cat's inner ear. Two physical attributes—called the vestibule and the semicircular canals—play a role in such graceful, lifesaving landings.
"All animals have this system within their inner ear that helps them to understand their body's positioning and equilibrium in order to maintain balance. There are small stones called otoliths and very fine hairs within the vestibule," she says. "As an animal turns its head side to side, the stones bend the hairs that are attached to nerves that tell the brain which direction the head is turning. The semicircular canals are filled with fluid that helps to detect rotation movements."
Cats are able to sense a change in their equilibrium whenever they start to fall. This prompts them to quickly correct the problem by turning their bodies—called the "righting reflex"—in the appropriate way for a successful landing. "Their backs are extremely flexible compared to people, so they are able to manipulate their bodies around much better than we could during a fall," Dr. Huston says. "They can then get their front legs and head into position in order to focus on a landing spot while the back legs finish rotating to complete the landing."
How Physics Affect Their Fall
Cats' bodies are designed to handle falls but it is ultimately up to physics whether their instinctual efforts are successful. According to physicist Greg Gbur, it partially comes down to the bend and twist motion but also the individual cat. "When one goes through the math, that seems to be the most fundamental aspect of how a cat turns over. But there are all these little corrections on top of that: using the tail, or using the paws for additional leverage, also play a role," the author of Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics told Arstechnica in December 2019. "So the fundamental explanation comes down to essentially bend and twist, but then there's all these extra little corrections to it."