Aug. 15, 2007 -- Lots of people say a falling cat always lands on its feet. Is that true? Maybe that's why they're said to have nine lives.
Scottie and Rodney Colvin of Summerville, S.C., thought their kitty Piper cashed in one of her lives last year. Piper was stuck high up in a tree for eight days. When a rescuer started up the tree to save her, Piper crept farther away until the limb beneath her snapped. She fell 80 feet — more than six stories — twisting and turning in the air before slamming into the ground, feet first.
Talk about hitting the ground running … Piper wasn't even dazed. She scampered off and hid under a car before anyone could catch her. A vet checked Piper out and said she was fine, just providing her fluids for dehydration and ibuprofen for stiffness.
We asked Ann Hohenhaus, a veterinarian at New York's Animal Medical Center (http://www.amcny.org), one of the busiest veterinary hospitals in the country, whether it's true that cats always land on their feet.
"They darned sure land on their feet an awful lot of the time," she said. "It's because the cat is very flexible."
Front Feet First
Cats have an uncanny way of righting themselves as they fall, Hohenhaus explained.
"They fall on their front feet, probably because that's what's righted first," she said. "The physicists describe the middle of the cat as being a universal joint. … First the front half, the head and the front feet, rights itself. And then the back feet follow around."
"20/20" used slow-motion photography provided by the National Geographic Channel (www.ngcwild.com ) to illustrate the phenomenon.
In 1987, the Animal Medical Center published a study of falling cats in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. So many cats had fallen from unscreened windows in tall buildings that researchers gave it a name: High-Rise Syndrome. Staffers examined the cases of 132 cats that had fallen out of high-rise windows and were brought to the center for treatment.
The Farther They Fall …
A surprising finding: Cats that fell farther did better.
"Pets that fell from higher floors did better than those falling between five and nine," Hohenhaus said.
Apparently, cats that fall farther are able to spread their bodies like feline parachutes to slow themselves down.
"Right as they land, they arch their backs to reduce the force of impact," said Hohenhaus.
Do cats falling more than 10 stories really survive?
"Max we have in our record books is 42," the vet said. "I don't know how the cat survived it, but 42 stories is, in fact, our greatest fall."
He didn't fall 42 floors, but a five-story drop was enough to bring Simba the cat for treatment at the center. Simba belongs to Ivan and Jackie Gonzalez. It happened at 2 a.m. when Ivan noticed that Simba was gone from his New York apartment and his other cat, Tiger, was at the window, looking down. Ivan ran downstairs to the backyard behind his building.
"The first thing that came to my mind was just, it's dead," he said.
But Simba wasn't dead. He was hurt and Ivan brought him to the Animal Medical Center. We joined Ivan, Jackie and Simba during a follow-up visit with Hohenhaus.
"This cat's injuries are typical of a cat who has fallen out of a high building and landed on his feet and his chin. He broke his front feet and then he bumped his chin on the ground as he fell down," she said.
Without witnessing the fall, it's difficult to say why cats fall from windows; the cat's certainly not talking. It's believed that a house cat may spot a passing bird outside a window and when the prey instinct kicks in, leaps out to catch it. Sometimes a cat may be frightened by something unusual in the house and try to escape out an open window.
And what about dogs — how do they do in falls?
"Dogs don't do as well as cats," Hohenhaus said. "Because dogs are not as flexible as cats, they maybe have worse injuries, don't right themselves as quickly, and therefore have more traumatic injuries."
The moral for pet owners, Hohenhaus says, is screens. "Fine wire-mesh screens are your safest bet if you have a pet in the house."
And if you have a terrace: "Don't let your pet out on a terrace without supervision or without a leash or without having the terrace be fenced or screened in some way," she said.
Ivan says he still can't believe how Simba survived the fall from the building's top floor.
"I learned my lesson and I'm keeping the windows shut on the bottom all the time," he said.