You fall out of a 19th-story window, and the word “splat” is in your very near future. A cat falls 19 stories, and she glides earthward to live another day. It really happened several years ago when a white fluff ball named Sugar dropped out of her owner’s high-rise window and walked away to enjoy her eight remaining lives with only some minor bruising on her lungs but no broken bones, no lacerations, no anything. What is it that makes cats nimble enough to be able to land safely, even from great heights?
The feline spine is quite flexible (in part because it has more bones than the human spine). Immediately after a cat falls, she twists around mid-air to adjust herself in what scientists call the “righting reflex.” Next, she extends all four legs away from her body. This causes the large folds of skin adjacent to each leg to fan out, much like a bat’s wings, creating a parachute effect. Then, too, cats’ small bodies, light bone structure, and dense fur help slow their velocity toward the end of a fall, softening the impact. Finally, cats have extremely sensitive vestibular systems — inner-ear mechanisms that regulate balance.
Some research even suggests cats do better falling from a high story than, say, the second floor because they have more time to put all their systems in place. But cats can and do get hurt when they fall, even if they land on their feet. So it’s best to keep windows on high floors not open enough for them to be able to wriggle through.