Throwing cats out of windows

We all know cats have nine lives and it seems this old wives tale comes mainly from their ability to survive falls but is there any truth in it?

Extensive research does in fact show that cats are almost perfectly built to survive falls because of a few factors:

  • They have a keen sense of what is up and what is down.
  • They have an innate ability to orient themselves as they fall in order to land on their feet.
  • They have very flexible backbones and their legs are better able to absorb the impact than are ours.
  • They have a survivable terminal velocity.

Terminal velocity is the speed something will achieve falling through air when there has been enough time for the force of gravity (pulling you down) and the force of drag or air resistance (pushing you up) to stabilise. Putting it another way, it is the speed reached when the drag equals the weight of the falling object. Once you’ve reached terminal velocity you won’t fall any faster no matter how long you fall, unless you change your shape or the wind picks up. For a human the terminal velocity is between 120-200 mph depending whether you are flying squirrel shape horizontal or pencil shape vertical. For a cat it is around 60 mph and for a ping-pong ball it is 20 mph.

Note: this is all assuming you are in earth’s atmosphere lower than Mount Everest. As the atmosphere thins and temperatures drop things are different. Which is why Felix Baumgartner managed to fall at over 800 mph!

A general rule is anything lighter than a cat, unless it is very aerodynamic, is going to be okay. Anything heavier than a cat is not, ranging from in one piece but terminally damaged (human) to SPLAT! The cat is poised right on the edge between the pearly gates and another bowl of Whiskas.

When a cat realises it is falling through air and is likely to soon be rudely acquainted with the ground it checks out the situation and adopts one of four strategies:

  1. Shortish distance to ground – Legs down and brace for impact
  2. Roughly between the 2nd and 4th floors – curl up in a ball trying to protect head and vital organs. Possible last minute change to 1.
  3. Between 4th and 7th floors – PANIC. This is the most dangerous height for cats
  4. Above the 7th floor – all of the above followed by relaxation upon reaching terminal velocity, casually adopting the flying squirrel pose and hoping for the best.

In a 1987 study, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, of 132 cats that were brought into the New York Animal Medical Center after having fallen from buildings, it was found that the injuries per cat increased depending on the height fallen up to seven stories but decreased above seven stories. The study authors speculated that after falling five stories the cats reached terminal velocity and thereafter relaxed and spread their bodies to increase drag.

In a 1987 study of 132 cats brought to a New York City emergency veterinary clinic after falls from high-rise buildings, 90% of treated cats survived and only 37% needed emergency treatment to keep them alive. One that fell 32 stories onto concrete suffered only a chipped tooth and a collapsed lung and was released after 48 hours.

Unfortunately it seems this NYC study of 132 cats in 1987 is the only one available online but it is better than nothing.

So, if you do feel like throwing your cat from the window please make sure it is from anything above the 7th floor and give the poor guy a chance!

Cat at terminal velocity - but relaxed!

Cat at terminal velocity – but relaxed!

Having done this research, what is worrying me more is the clear and apparent danger posed by windows in New York. Almost everything that falls from windows is in New York. I was reading the other day the dreadful story of Eric Clapton’s 4 yr old son Conor who fell to his death from an open window on the 53rd floor of a Manhattan apartment block. The cat study was in New York. Just Google “falling from window in New York” or similar, millions of results. Is it just coincidence or is there something especially dangerous about NY windows?

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