Do Cats Really Always Land on Their Feet?
How do cats manage to spin around so quickly when they fall—and does it always work?
It’s a memorable, pithy phrase that every cat enthusiast has surely heard countless times. But when an adage includes the word “always,” it can generate some skepticism. Cats can’t possibly land on their feet every single time, can they? And, of course, there are plenty of cat “facts” that are actually false. Is this true at all?
Well, cats don’t always land on their feet—but the saying does have a basis in truth. Cats’ biology does allow them to right their bodies when they fall, so that their feet are facing downward.
The righting reflex
Cats’ ability to land on their feet can be chalked up to the “righting reflex” that they possess, according to Emily Parker, cat behavior expert at Catological. “This reflex is constantly working to orient the body, so that the head is upright and the rest of the body can support it,” she explains. But a common misconception is that this feature is unique to cats. The righting reflex “is inherent in most vertebrates, including humans,” Parker says. So humans have it, too—it’s how our bodies are able to effortlessly return to an upright position when we’re walking, running, or even sitting down.
The reflex originates in the “vestibular apparatus” that animals and humans have in their inner ear. The vestibular apparatus is “a series of structures and canals that contain hair cells and fluid,” Parker explains. “The vestibular apparatus detects motion and gravity and sends appropriate signals to the brain.”
And while most mammals do have it, the way it works in cats is what’s unique. This is because cats’ spines are incredibly flexible—twice as flexible as those of humans, in fact. “A cat can rotate its body up to 180 degrees,” Parker explains. “For perspective, humans can rotate about 90 degrees.” A rotation of 180 degrees would mean that your torso would face the opposite direction as your hips. And it’s that extreme rotation that allows cats to, on most occasions, land with their feet facing downward. It’s the reason most of those terrified cats can indeed land on their feet in those viral videos where they leap away from cucumbers in terror—here’s why cats are so afraid of cucumbers.
What happens when a cat falls?
“When a cat begins to fall, the first thing it does is arch its spine,” Parker explains. This immediately allows the front and back of the cat’s body to move independently of one another. Then it pulls its front paws in, allowing its torso to rotate even faster, in a demonstration of conservation of angular momentum. It’s “kind of like how a figure skater can spin faster by bringing her arms in,” Parker says. Once the torso is almost right side up, the cat will do the same with its back legs so that the back half of its body will rotate quickly, “effectively [allowing] the back half to ‘catch up’ to the front half.” Finally, Kitty extends its paws so that they’re ready to meet the ground.
That sounds like a lot, but it all happens in an instant! And, of course, this is a reflex, so it’s something the cat’s body automatically “does”; it’s not like Kitty is thinking through, and deliberately performing, each step.
It’s not completely foolproof, so sometimes a cat will take a klutzy fall. And occasionally a cat doesn’t have enough time to fully complete this process—but Parker says that, if the cat is falling from 12 inches above the ground or higher, it should be enough time for the cat to fully reorient itself. So, yeah, “a foot or higher” does constitute pretty much any substantial fall.
So while “cats always land on their feet” might not be true 100 percent of the time, cats’ impressive falling techniques have more than proved worthy of a memorable saying. Next, learn some more purr-fectly fascinating feline facts.