When a cat falls through the air, it is able to correct itself with a highly efficient reflex reaction. This involves both its eyes and specialised structures within the inner ear, which together combine to produce a sort of righting reflex. This righting reflex occurs within a split second of a fall and guarantees the cat to land in the correct position – in other words, upright, on all fours and perfectly ‘square’ with the ground.
The remarkable ability of cats to turn themselves in mid-air when falling, and to then land safely, seems to defy the laws of motion. Cats have a special sense of body orientation that enables them to accomplish this.
If you’ve ever watched a cat falling through the air, you may have been surprised to see that it landed with a perfection of which most athletes would be proud.
What cats, unlike athletes, are lucky enough to have is a special internal sense of body orientation.
This righting reflex is achieved by a combination of supersensitive sense organs, including the eyes, which are very acute, and the vestibular apparatus in the inner ear, which acts as a sort of balance and orientation monitor.
Together, the senses respond in a split second, as the cat adjusts its head to an upright position and twists its body appropriately. The result is a safe landing for the cat.
Just as ice skaters draw in their arms to increase the speed of their turn, so the cat pulls in its legs to its body as it turns, before stretching out its paws for a safe landing.
When a cat realises that it is falling, it will immediately twist its head round so that it can see where it is going to land. This is crucial to a successful landing.
The cat’s efficient righting reflex may have been at the root of the legend that cats have nine lives. The feet and shoulders of the cat act rather like effective shock absorbers when it lands.
Yes. This is because after a certain distance, the cat reaches maximum speed, after which its inner ear system is no longer stimulated. This means that the cat relaxes and relaxed limbs are less likely to break than unrelaxed ones.
No. Although a kitten is born with a developed inner ear mechanism, it cannot see. This reflex depends on both eye and inner ear messages.
Cats have weak neck muscles and can’t always hold back their heads. So a falling cat’s chin may hit the ground and result in a fractured jaw.