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The Australian news a week or so back reported the story of a Melbourne cat named Charlie who fell 18 stories from a Melbourne Apartment building. While Charlie is sporting a broken jaw, teeth and foot injuries as a result, it was miraculous that he survived. “The vet said cats do this crazy thing where they flatten out and sort of float if they fall from higher levels (above the 11th floor), and they have worse injuries if they fall from lower levels!" (Support for Charlie's recovery is available via the GoFundMe page, the picture is from Yahoo News Australia). Another Aussie cat survived 34 stories after falling out of an apartment the day after Christmas last year. Could a cat conceivably fall of the Empire State Building which is 102 stories high and still survive?
There are a number of stories of cats having fallen heights of 35 floors and survived. Surprisingly research has found that 90% of all cats who fall out of buildings survive, though that's not to say that serious injuries haven't resulted. So what makes a cat so special? There appear to be a number of factors. Firstly, a falling cat has the ability to reach a lower terminal velocity of 60 miles per hour compared to a human being falling out of a building. Terminal velocity is when air friction counteracts acceleration for gravity. Combine this with a lower body mass and there is less force striking the ground. As Newton’s law tells us, Force = Mass x Acceleration. In mathematics, the "square-cube-law" describes the relationship between the volume and the surface area as a shape’s size increases or decreases. So as a shape grows in size, the volume grows faster than the surface area. More surface area at a lower mass when falling will reduce your terminal velocity. In real-world terms, this results in smaller objects like cats falling slower than their scaled-up counterparts, like the cat owner falling out of a building. According to scientists, once a cat has fallen 13 floors it has already reached terminal velocity. Implying that if your cat survives falling 13 floors it can potentially survive falling off the Empire State Building!
However, there’s more to this than just the terminal velocity factor. If you drop a cat upside down, it will always tend to fall on its feet. Cats are extremely flexible and will contort their bodies to correct themselves. Cats are essentially arboreal animals, so when they're not living in homes or in urban alleys, they tend to live in trees where they develop adaptations for survival. Cats have a keen instinct for sensing which way is down, analogous to the mechanism humans use for balance, biologists say. Studies have shown that cats are more likely to be killed in shorter falls because they may not have sufficient time to prepare their bodies for impact. Further still, if a cat falls from the 2nd to 7th floors they tend to land feet first. Their long muscular legs, developed for jumping, act as shock absorbers. Scientists suggest that the same muscles divert energy into decelerating rather than breaking bones. Their springy legs increase the distance over which the force of the collision with the ground dissipates. Additionally, a cat's legs are angled under the body rather than extended downward, like human legs, so the forces upon landing are dissipating into the sides reducing the force on the bones which could potentially break otherwise. Interestingly, it is observed that when a cat falls above the 7th floor pure instinct causes them to splay out their limbs and land belly first like a parachuter which again is aimed at reducing their speed and reducing the direct impact on their legs upon landing. The downside is the likelihood of higher chest trauma.
Then, of course, there are other typical factors to consider such as the build and health of the cat, how fluffy the cat is in absorbing impact, the type of surface that the cat lands on, for example, grass would be preferable versus cement.
So conceivably a cat could fall from any challenging height and survive. Anything is possible, the Guinness book of records notes the highest fall of a human being who survived without a parachute is 10,160 meters (33,330 ft). Vesna Vulović's fell after an explosion tore through the baggage compartment of European flight JAT Flight 367 on 26 January 1972. It’s not true that ALL cats survive these high falls, but without doubt, our feline friends are able to survive falls at a much higher rate than you’d expect, which makes them one special kind of animal. However, don't test this by throwing fluffy out of a high window!