Does a slice of toast fallen from a hungry diner's plate land buttered side down more often than not? It is a question that has perplexed the mind since the advent of toast. Similar to the buttered toast paradox is the perplexity of the falling feline.
The general premise is that a falling cat always lands on its feet. People have pondered this phenomenon probably since the beginning of cats and gravity. In fact, a field of science exists specifically concerned with the study of falling cats. It is called feline pesematology. Additionally, the pattern of injuries suffered by cats that have fallen from great distances is prevalent and consistent enough that a veterinarian in 1976, Dr. Gordon Robinson, created a name for it -- feline high-rise syndrome.
According to research that has been conducted in the field of feline pesematology, like buttered toast, falling cats tend to land feet first. The most amazing thing discovered in this field is the survival rate for cats that fall from incredibly high places. In a five month period in New York City, veterinarians gathered data on 132 cats that were admitted to the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan due to falls from high-rise buildings. The average height of the falls was 5.5 stories (or roughly 66 feet) although some fell from much higher distances. Most of these cats landed on concrete and incredibly, most of them survived, including one that fell from 32 stories, which is approximately 384 feet.
The study, conducted by Dr. Wayne Whitney and Dr. Cheryl Mehlhaff and reported in The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, produced even more startling results when it revealed that the higher the fall the higher the chance of survival. Apparently when cats fall they reach a terminal velocity, the speed at which they no longer accelerate, of 60 mph. Once the sensation of acceleration is gone the cats relax, right themselves, and spread out like a flying squirrel. This increases the wind resistance while allowing for a flexed landing position. The results looked something like this:
• Cats that fell five stories or less tended to walk away with minor injuries.
• Cats that fell between five and nine stories reached terminal velocity but failed to have enough time to prepare for impact and more injuries and deaths were found in this group than any other.
• Cats that fell from greater than nine stories did the best of all with only one out of 22 cats succumbing to the trauma of the fall.
Some have claimed that the statistics are misleading due to the fact that only cats that survived the initial impact and were taken to the veterinary clinic were included in the study. They argue that other cats likely existed that fell, perished and were never included in the study, therefore skewing the data. While that may be true it does little to diminish the staggering feats of falling felines. Twenty-one cats, within a five-month period, survived a fall from a height of greater than 100 feet, now that's extraordinary! In fact, it is known that one cat fell roughly 552 feet (46 stories) and survived.
When applying the nine lives theory of cat survivability you would expect that one-ninth of the falling cats would use up its final life, producing a survival rate of about 90 percent. When you group all of the survival statistics of the Whitney-Mehlhaff study together that is exactly what you find. Maybe, just maybe, science is whispering that cats really do have nine lives.
• Tug Gettling is the director of North Utah Valley Animal Services.