Last week news hit that a cat, the regular Felix Domestica kind, fell from a 19-storey window in Boston but miraculously survived. Now everyone has heard of how cats fall from heights that would nearly always kill human beings and still survive, landing on their feet. And though Sugar did not land on its feet, bruising its chest, the cat survived an otherwise fatal fall.
While it may be assumed that Sugar survived thanks to all its nine lives (eight as a matter of fact), there is a scientific explanation for all this. One, scientists say, is a natural consequence of evolutionary biology and physiology as Virginia Tech university biochemist Jake Socha says, "This recent story isn't much of a surprise. We do know that animals exhibit this behaviour, and there have been lots of records of these cats surviving."
Of course getting off scot free isn’t always the case, as statistics from a 1987 study showed that of 132 cats brought to a New York City emergency veterinary clinic for treatment for falls from high-rises, 90 percent of the cats survived with 37 percent requiring emergency treatment.
Apparently, this luck of the Irish that cats have owes to a primordial fact is exhibited by many of the domestic cat’s cousins such as cheetahs. When not chasing down a gazelle on the African savannah, cheetahs are often found lounging around in trees and this is because most cats are arboreal, or tree living and domestic cats still retain this as well as many of the adaptations for such living. This includes having a larger surface area in comparison to its weight, giving it an almost ‘parachute’ trait, which allows it to reach its terminal velocity, or the constant speed at which a body falls, a lot slower than heavier objects.
Dr. Socha adds, "Being able to survive falls is a critical thing for animals that live in trees, and cats are one of them. The domestic cat still contains whatever suite of adaptations they have that have enable cats to be good up in trees."
On top of this, cats also are able to correct themselves in freefall with their tails, making sure they land on their feet. Robert Dudley, a biologist at the animal flight laboratory at the University of California – Berkeley, explains, "Everything that lives in trees has what we call an aerial righting reflex.” Cats are also able to splay their legs - which further adds to the parachute effect and their legs are also quite muscular and act as shock absorbers.
Scientists add that even with such physiological advantages, not all cats can be this lucky, as sometimes domestic cats tend to be sedentary and overweight, inhibiting their natural gifts.