Everyone has heard the old adage “cats always land on their feet.” From observation, it appears to be true. If you have ever seen a cat take a tumble, you probably saw it land on its feet. Cats are very nimble!  Still, why do cats always land on their feet? What makes this possible?

History begs: Why do cats always land on their feet?

The 1800’s brought a huge rise in the popularity of cats as house pets. Curiosity about the beautiful creatures flourished throughout the Victorian Era. After the first cat show, anybody who was anybody wanted to own a cat.

Cats even caught the attention of the elite scientific community. Many traits of cats would become of scientific interest, but one question was particularly burning- why do cats always land on their feet? Scientists took to a practice known as “cat turning” to find the answer. In doing this, scientists would drop cats from various heights and on various angles to try and see if they could spot the answer. Unfortunately, the scientists back then didn’t have the kind of compassion for animals that most people do today. Hundreds of cats died in these experiments from being thrown from high buildings.

Cats Turn the World of Science Upside Down

Why do cats always land on their feet? cat bed jump

Photo Credit: Luan Anh

James Clerk Maxwell was one of the scientists who practiced cat turning. Letters to his wife proclaimed his excitement about the results of his various cat turning experiments. To get a closer look at the answer to this riddle, Maxwell teamed up with a few other scientists and took cat turning to a whole new level.

One of the team members was scientist and early cinematographer named Etienne-Jules Marey. Marey had created a “photographic rifle” in 1882 which would be of assistance in their studies. It was a rifle that had been fitted with lens and the trigger mechanism controlled the exposure of the light on the negatives. With this photographic rifle Marley was able to capture 12 frames per second or have a 1/720th of a second exposure rate. Using Marley’s invention, the team of scientists got to see the falling cat’s motions frame by frame.

Did this series of photographs answer the question “Why do cats always land on their feet?” Well, not exactly.  When it was presented by Marey in 1894 to a collection of esteemed scientists at the French Acadèmie of Sciences, there was an uproar. The cat’s ability to turn itself from upside down to right side up without continuing to tumble seemed to defy the Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum (essentially that an object can not start or stop turning without being acted upon by a force). These questions would remain unanswered until 1969.

How a Cat “Defies the Laws of Physics”

How does a cat always land on it’s feet?  Well, they don’t ALWAYS land on their feet, but they do more often than not. It’s all in a reflex that cat’s are born with called the righting reflex. Here’s the process:

  1. Why do cats always land on their feet Marey's Falling_cat_1894

    Marey’s photos of the cat turning experiment from 1894

    A cat is dropped from a position with it’s feet up in the air and back toward the ground.

  2. The cat uses both it’s eyes and small mechanisms in it’s ears to determine which way is up and which way is down.
  3. The cat turns it’s head in the direction of “down” and gauges distance to the ground.
  4. The front half of the cat’s body folds inward and turns toward the ground while the back half of the body extends out and remains facing away from the ground. This is made possible by a cat’s very flexible spine.
  5. The back legs quickly turn toward the ground.
  6. The cat’s back arches and all 4 legs extend. At this point if there is enough time during the fall, the cat’s body will relax.
  7. The cat’s body impacts with the ground and the joints bend until the body is touching the ground. The cat’s strong joints absorb the force of the impact.

Scientists can breathe a sigh of relief. As it turns out, the way the cat uses it’s body in halves, is what helps it to satisfy the laws of physics. The front half builds momentum while the back half builds inertia. It all evens out in the end. If you would like to see it in action click here.

When cats fall from higher distances, the shape of the body actually behaves like a parachute, slowing down the cat a bit. Studies done of cats that have fallen from high rises (High Rise Syndrome) show that cats falling from floors 7 and above had a lower risk of death and severe injury than did cats falling from floors 2 – 6. It is hypothesized that the reason cats have better results falling from higher floors is that they have more time for their body to relax and brace for the impact.

Does your pet do anything that amazes you?