Cat-Like Reflexes

True or False: Cat’s always land on their feet

False! Most of the time a cat will make it look effortless and land gracefully on all four feet. However, injuries are possible and a falling cat could sustain broken bones, internal damages or even death. There are many contributing factors that help a cat land on its feet so first we will start with anatomy.

Our feline friends are born with a flexible backbone that aids in correcting themselves when they fall. A cat has 30 vertebrae which helps with their suppleness whereas a human only has 24 excluding the coccygeal (tailbone). The vertebrae for the backbone includes the cervical, thoracic, and lumber regions which in both feline and humans are articulating and are separated by intervertebral discs. The intervertebral discs are made up of fibrocartilaginous material that has two layers which act like a shock absorber between vertebrae when there is impact from activity. These factors of the spine allows cats to rotate their bodies around further than most other animals.

The first picture shows basic cat anatomy and the second picture shows you the intervertebral discs.

Next, like many domesticated animals, felines have free floating clavicle bones. The rudimentary collarbone does not articulate with the rest of the body. This acts almost like an extra limb segment because it is no longer inhibited by the clavicle allowing more efficiency when running. In the first picture you will see a human collarbone in red and the second image is a cat shoulders. You can see that in the human image the collarbone connects from sternum to shoulder blade and in the feline image the vestigial collar bone floats, anchored in place by muscles. This feature also allows cats the ability to squeeze through tight spaces and rotate their bodies 180 degrees easily.

One major dynamic in the cat’s ability to land safely after a fall is the vestibular system. The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and has an intricate network of nerves and other apparatuses that act as its balance and orientation compass. Basically this tells the cat which way is up so that it can rotate its head and body separately to the perfect landing position.

The flexible backbone, the floating clavicle and the vestibular system make up the Cat’s Righting Reflex which is a natural ability that allows our feline friends to re-align their bodies and land on their feet. This is not a learned behavior but a cool adaption which sets in as early as 3-4 weeks in kittens and is completely learned by 6-7 weeks of age. The picture below shows the techniques needed to execute the stunning acrobatic flips that land these frisky felines so gracefully on the ground.

Another advantage cats have going for them is their low body-volume-to-weight ratio, thick fur, and the ability to spread out their bodies like a parachute to decrease their terminal velocity which softens the impact just like flying squirrels.

But remember, none of these cool cat facts mean a kitty cannot be injured by falling. In fact, a cat is more likely to be injured from a short fall as their body does not have time to make the flip!

by Amanda Haebrig

Amanda - Oakview Vet Plover Stevens Point WI

Amanda was born in Indiana but has lived in Stevens Point most of her life. She joined the Oakview team in March of 2016 and has quickly become part of the family. She enjoys Motorcycle riding and Horseback riding when not working.
She shares her life with her significant other, Kevin and their Siberian Huskies Storm, Hale, and Zepplin.

Amanda was born in Indiana but has lived in Stevens Point most of her life. She joined the Oakview team in March of 2016 and has quickly become part of the family.
She enjoys Motorcycle riding and Horseback riding when not working.
She shares her life with her significant other, Kevin and their Siberian Huskies Storm, Hale, and Zepplin.

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