CVMA | Documents | Cats Can Survive Falls from High Places

Cats Can Survive Falls from High Places

October 24, 2012

Cats seem to have an uncanny ability to survive falls from high places. For example, cats have been known to survive falls of up to 32 stories. By contrast, dogs rarely survive falls of more than six stories. Humans usually die when they fall from such heights. 

In a study of cats that had fallen from up to 32 stories, an interesting finding emerged: while the rate of injury in cats seemed to increase linearly depending on the length of the fall, after seven stories, the rate of injury seemed to level off! In other words, the survival rate and severity of injuries were no more severe in a cat that fell seven stories than in one that fell 32 and in some cases, injuries were even less!

After further study, the reasons for this discrepancy became clear. When a person falls from a building, maximum speed or "terminal velocity" (120 mph) is reached after 32 stories. Cats, on the other hand, appeared to have the unique ability to achieve terminal velocity at 60 mph and after falling only five stories!  

Until a cat reaches terminal velocity, it will experience acceleration and tend to reflexively extend its limbs, making it more susceptible to injuries. However, when a cat reaches terminal velocity, its vestibular system (i.e. the organs of balance) become less stimulated, causing the cat to relax. It will then orient its limbs more horizontally (splay-legged), thereby increasing air drag in much the same way a parachute does. In this posture, the force of impact also appears to become more evenly distributed.

Cats have an excellent sense of balance and most are unlikely to lose their balance and fall off a balcony. Unfortunately, falls from high-rise apartments do occur with some frequency. The term "High-rise Syndrome" (HRS) is used to describe traumatic injuries resulting from falls of more than two stories in cats and more than 1 story in dogs. According to veterinarians, the most common injury in cats with HRS is chest trauma, which is also the leading cause of death in falls. By contrast, head injury and internal haemorrhage are the leading cause of death in humans. Most dogs with HRS are usually euthanised by owners, often because of the high cost of treatment.

The types of injury and the survival rate after a fall depend to a great extent on both the height of the fall and the surface on which an animal lands. Other factors include the position of the animal at the time of landing, any obstacles that might break the fall, and the amount of air drag while falling. While humans invariably die after falls of more than six stories, the survival rate in dogs and cats that are treated is 99 per cent and 90 per cent respectively.  

Because of the frequency with which High-Rise Syndrome occurs, apartment dwellers should take care to keep their pets properly restrained if they are permitted access to a balcony. For example, using a harness on a cat or small dog and supervising their stays on the porch can prevent this problem from occurring. Better yet, dogs and cats are best kept away from balconies altogether.