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Cat tales: Purrfect landing

October 12, 2013

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Not all cats can turn a tumble into a touchdown

I OFTEN hear grown up humans tell their kids when they are playing in the garden or jumping off couches in the living room in a mad frenzy, “Fall on your feet, like a cat,” in the belief that if cats can do it, children can do the same and, following that trick, they won’t get hurt.

Well, to begin with, cats are amazing creatures and we all know that, don’t we? (Some of us may be fat and hence not so graceful, ahem, but generally we cats can gracefully jump from a higher position with remarkable poise and little or no noise. We can jump from the floor to a table full of knick knacks and on the best of days, our paws will land in the tiny spaces between the knick knacks that will not knock over at all. Isn’t that amazing?

Our bodies are constructed in a way that is different from humans and other animals. We come with a complete landing gear made of a very flexible system of muscles and bones. We do not have a collar bone (just a collar, hee hee!) and the little 30 bones that make our backbone allow much more movement compared to humans, and say dogs. This gives us a unique sense of balance and coordination.

We are also called digitigrade animals. This literally means that we walk on our toes. How cool is that! All these facts just to let you know how unique we are.

If one of us falls from a short distance, like say the top of a cupboard or the first floor, most of the time we will land on our feet, but not always. There are many cats that have injured themselves when they fell out of open windows, balconies and rooftops that were higher than the first floor. Brave (as well as really stupid sometimes) that we are, we can take a silly leap after a bird or a butterfly only to later realise, “Oh my God, we are falling …!”

There is the incredible ‘righting reflex’ that works when a cat is falling. The ‘righting reflex’ is a whole system where our ears, brain and special cells work to protect us from injury during a fall. This is our ability to first, know up from down, and then to rotate and control our head and body while we are in the air so that our feet land first on the ground. Animal experts say that kittens begin to develop this instinct at three to four weeks after birth.

Even when we can manage to land on our feet, injuries can happen because the legs and feet cannot absorb the shock of hitting the ground hard.

Both humans and animals tense their muscles when free-falling, which makes them more likely to get injured. But it is a little different with us cats. We are stiff until we reach our top velocity, after which we relax our muscles and spread ourselves out like flying squirrels or birds.

Sure we have nine lives, but that does not mean we should risk falling and other dangers. There should be no high-up open windows in your home without heavy screens, that are strong and intact because I know some very stubborn cats who, when they want to go out, will try anything! Unscreened windows and high terraces should be off limits for cats.