• Dr Grant Hampson

Do Cats Always Land On Their Feet?



You may have heard the saying ‘cats always land on their feet’ ... and because they spend so much time climbing trees and other high places, it would be a useful skill to have.


The debate on this subject has been going on for decades, and the exact mechanism for this has been studied by many different scientists. The first study was published in the year 1700 by a French scientist named Antoine Parent.


Scientists were perplexed because they assumed cats needed some kind of “push off”, in order to fulfil this movement.


Eventually they came up with a theory known as “the righting reflex”. This reflex allows cats the ability to turn themselves in the air and land on their feet. Cats have no collarbones and an extremely flexible spine, the combination of these two unique features allows cats the ability to correct themselves whilst falling. It is thought that cats can develop this unique ability as early as 3 weeks old!


Falling Cat – images captured in a chronophotography by Étienne-Jules Marey (shown in the journal Nature, 1894)


As a cat starts to fall, they establish up from down using the specialised mechanism in the middle ear known as the vestibular apparatus. They bend themselves in the middle, arching their backs, with the front half of their body rotating at a different axis from their rear half. Then they quickly tuck their front legs in, and extend their rear legs out, rotating the front half of the body. After this, they extend their front legs and tuck in their hind legs, which rotates their rear half ... and Eureka! They land on their feet.


Whilst cats do have this amazing innate attribute, they can still hurt themselves if they fall from great heights. Therefore, it is important to be very careful if you live high up, make sure your windows are closed and balconies are cat proofed to stop them falling.


Next ... does toast always land on its buttered side?


References:


  1. Sechzera, Jeri A.; Folsteina, Susan E.; Geigera, Eric H.; Mervisa, Ronald F.; Meehana, Suzanne M. (December 1984). "Development and maturation of postural reflexes in normal kittens''. Experimental Neurology. 86 (3): 493–505. doi:10.1016/0014-4886(84)90084-0. PMID 6499990.

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