Our cat Troi, aka the Fat Cat, aka the Blob Cat, aka the Tubby Tabby is not exactly light on her feet. When she jumps down off a windowsill, pretty much the whole house knows about it. She also is walking proof that cats don’t always land on their feet.
When we first got her, she liked to sit on the railing that surrounds our stairwell. Unfortunately, one time she leaped to jump up there, missed, and went down the stairwell. She did not land on her feet. In fact, she landed on her side and when we rushed down the stairs to see what happened, I was afraid she was dead. Fortunately, she was just bruised and still has a few lives left.
Even though the old wives tale about cats always landing on their feet obviously isn’t true, because of their coordination and certain aspects of their physiology, cats often can pull off incredible landings.
When a cat falls, he actually can tell which way is up and will rotate his head up and bring his front legs up toward his face. Then the rest of his body sort of rolls upright following the front half. (If you’ve ever seen film footage of this process in slow motion, it’s really fascinating.)
A cat’s ability to right itself in midair is because of a small organ in the cat’s inner ear called the vestibular apparatus. Cats also have tremendous flexibility, as you have probably noticed if you’ve ever watched your cat contort herself into a pretzel to clean those hard to reach areas. This ability to twist also makes it possible for them to right themselves during a fall.
Even though a cat may land on her feet, if she falls too far, the cat’s legs and feet can’t absorb the shock of impact and the cat may still be hurt or killed from the fall. However, you might have heard amazing stories about cats that have fallen from extremely great heights and actually lived.
Apparently, the reason for these miraculous recoveries is because if a cat falls more than five stories, it can reach "terminal velocity." When something falls, its rate of decent increases, but not indefinitely because of air resistance. Terminal velocity is when air resistance prevents further acceleration. If a cat falls far enough to stop accelerating and reach terminal velocity, the animal relaxes somewhat and spreads herself out. The impact is then spread out over a larger area and results in fewer injuries.
In any case, as any vet will tell you, cats are hurt and die in falls all the time. So keep screens on your windows and your kitty safe.