Nine Stories, Nine Lives, and One Lucky Cat

 |  Nov 29th 2011  |   1 Contribution


Sodie the cat survived a nine-story fall with only a broken leg and a bruised lung. Photo courtesy of the <em>Edmonton Journal</em>

Warren Tasker of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, recently got the shock of his life.

His cat, Sodie, plummeted from the balcony of his ninth-floor apartment and lived to mew the tale.

Tasker saw Sodie fall and dashed down the nine flights of stairs. He looked around for the cat as magpies circled the building's front lawn. Finally he found the gray tabby lying motionless on the ground.

"I thought he was dead," Tasker wrote. "He had crawled under the tree to escape the magpies."

He rushed Sodie to an emergency vet clinic and waited with his girlfriend, silently hoping their beloved cat would be okay.

When the vet came to report on Sodie's condition, there was a smile on his face. Considering that the cat had fallen about 75 feet, the damage was minimal. He had fractured three bones in his right front paw and had some bruised lung tissue.

After two weeks of cage rest and four more weeks of wearing a cast on his broken leg, Sodie is making a good recovery.

But how do cats survive such horrific falls?

It's all about terminal velocity and relaxation.

As we all know, cats have an instinctive ability to turn themselves paw-side down when they fall. But when cats plummet from heights greater than about seven stories, they have time to reach a speed that physicists call terminal velocity; that is, they can't go any faster. Terminal velocity for cats in free-fall is about 60 miles an hour.

Somewhere along the way, usually between the fifth and seventh stories of the fall, the cat's vestibular sense (which controls his orientation to the ground) stops being stimulated. When that happens, the cat spreads its legs horizontally, which increases air resistance — kind of like a parachute. Because the cat has time to relax and spread his legs, the impact of the fall is more evenly distributed through his body.

This phenomenon is common enough that it has come to be known as High-Rise Syndrome.

The most common High-Rise Syndrome injuries are broken limbs and chest injuries like pneumothorax (air in the chest which compresses the lungs) and bruising of the lungs. Thus, Sodie was a classic case.

Not all cats survive falls from great heights, though. Tasker had a friend who mentioned a cat that had fallen from the 15th floor of a building and, unfortunately, did not survive.

You can protect your own cats from High-Rise Syndrome by keeping them off balconies or, if you want your kitty to be able to get some fresh air, build an outdoor enclosure — a "catio," as cat behaviorist and TV personality Jackson Galaxy calls it.

Here's a video originally created for a college physics class that explains how High-Rise Syndrome works. It's a bit Monty Python-esque in its delivery, but it does have all the facts straight.

(In a reader? Watch the video here.)

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