The cat righting reflex is a
cat The cat (''Felis catus'') is a domestic species of small carnivorous mammal. It is the only domesticated species in the family Felidae and is commonly referred to as the domestic cat or house cat to distinguish it from the wild members of t ...
's innate ability to orient itself as it falls in order to land on its feet. The
righting reflex The righting reflex, also known as the labyrinthine righting reflex, is a reflex that corrects the orientation of the body when it is taken out of its normal upright position. It is initiated by the vestibular system, which detects that the body is ...
begins to appear at 3–4 weeks of age, and is perfected at 6–9 weeks. Cats are able to do this because they have an unusually flexible
backbone The backbone is the vertebral column of a vertebrate. Arts, entertainment, and media Film * ''Backbone'' (1923 film), a 1923 lost silent film starring Alfred Lunt * ''Backbone'' (1975 film), a 1975 Yugoslavian drama directed by Vlatko Gilić ...
and no functional
clavicle The clavicle, or collarbone, is a slender, S-shaped long bone approximately 6 inches (15 cm) long that serves as a strut between the shoulder blade and the sternum (breastbone). There are two clavicles, one on the left and one on the righ ...
(collarbone). The tail seems to help but cats without a tail also have this ability, since a cat mostly turns by moving its legs and twisting its spine in a certain sequence.


After determining down from up visually or with their vestibular apparatus (in the
inner ear The inner ear (internal ear, auris interna) is the innermost part of the vertebrate ear. In vertebrates, the inner ear is mainly responsible for sound detection and balance. In mammals, it consists of the bony labyrinth, a hollow cavity in th ...
), cats manage to twist themselves to face downward without changing their net
angular momentum In physics, angular momentum (rarely, moment of momentum or rotational momentum) is the rotational analog of linear momentum. It is an important physical quantity because it is a conserved quantity—the total angular momentum of a closed sys ...
. They are able to accomplish this with these key steps: #Bend in the middle so that the front half of their body rotates about a different axis from the rear half. #Tuck their front legs in to reduce the
moment of inertia The moment of inertia, otherwise known as the mass moment of inertia, angular mass, second moment of mass, or most accurately, rotational inertia, of a rigid body is a quantity that determines the torque needed for a desired angular acceler ...
of the front half of their body and extend their rear legs to increase the moment of inertia of the rear half of their body so that they can rotate their front by as much as 90° while the rear half rotates in the opposite direction as little as 10°. #Extend their front legs and tuck their rear legs so that they can rotate their rear half further while their front half rotates in the opposite direction less. Depending on the cat's flexibility and initial angular momentum, if any, the cat may need to perform steps two and three repeatedly to complete a full 180° rotation.

Terminal velocity

In addition to the righting reflex, cats have other features that reduce damage from a fall. Their small size, light bone structure, and thick fur decrease their terminal velocity. While falling, a cat spreads out its body to increase drag. An average-sized cat with its limbs extended achieves a terminal velocity of about , while an average-sized man reaches a terminal velocity of about . A 2003 study of feline high-rise syndrome found that cats "orient
heir Inheritance is the practice of receiving private property, titles, debts, entitlements, privileges, rights, and obligations upon the death of an individual. The rules of inheritance differ among societies and have changed over time. Officia ...
limbs horizontally after achieving maximum velocity so that the impact is more evenly distributed throughout the body".


With their righting reflex, cats often land uninjured. However, this is not always the case, since cats can still break bones or die from extreme falls. In a 1987 study, published in the ''Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association'', of 132 cats that were brought into the New York Animal Medical Center after having fallen from buildings, it was found that the injuries per cat increased depending on the height fallen up to seven stories, but decreased above seven stories. One cat survived a fall of 46 stories and landed with no injuries at all. The study authors speculated that after falling five stories the cats reached terminal velocity and thereafter relaxed and spread their bodies to increase
drag Drag or The Drag may refer to: Places * Drag, Norway, a village in Tysfjord municipality, Nordland, Norway * ''Drág'', the Hungarian name for Dragu Commune in Sălaj County, Romania * Drag (Austin, Texas), the portion of Guadalupe Street a ...
. However, critics of the study pointed out a survivorship bias in that instantly fatal falls were not included (as an already dead cat would not be taken to the vet), questioning the authors' conclusion that the injury rate declined for higher falls. A 2003 study of 119 cats concluded that "Falls from the seventh or higher stories, are associated with more severe injuries and with a higher incidence of thoracic trauma."

See also

* Falling cat problem – the mathematical problem of explaining the physics of the cat righting reflex * High-rise syndrome - veterinary terminology for injuries sustained by cats typically caused by falls from significant heights * Buttered cat paradox – a humorous combination of two observations, the cat righting reflex and the buttered toast phenomenon



Further reading

* * * *

External links

The surprisingly complicated physics of why cats always land on their feetNational Geographic video on the cat righting reflexSlow Motion Flipping Cat Physics
{{Cat nav Cat behavior Reflexes Articles containing video clips