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They Land on Little Cat Feet

December 28, 1987|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

Sabrina, a long-haired mixed-breed New York City house cat, probably does not fully appreciate her role in unraveling a longstanding animal mystery.

The young cat fell from the 32nd floor of a building to a concrete sidewalk and suffered only a chipped tooth and a minor chest injury, a feat that would seem to further the folkloric belief that felines have nine lives.

But from that case and others comes a study focused on the cat's superb internal gyroscope that is the major reason for that folklore.

'High-Rise Syndrome'

The inquiry concerns a phenomenon called "high-rise syndrome," common in urban areas with high concentrations of tall apartment buildings. It sheds new light on quirks of cat behavior often little understood by humans.

Most important, perhaps, it confirms what many humans have always known: Cats will almost always land on their feet. At the same time, another tenet of human faith has been seriously undermined: Cats, it turns out, are capable of potentially disastrous miscalculations or just plain clumsy footwork.

The new study looks at 132 cats that fell from great heights--an average of 5 1/2 stories and a range of from two to 32 floors--and were treated at the Animal Medical Center, a large veterinary hospital in New York City. Doctors there did the survey after one vet noticed what he initially thought was an extraordinary number of cats being brought in after reported falls.

Despite the distances they fell, 90% of the cats survived and 60% required no medical treatment or comparatively minor care. The others had corrective surgery or extensive care and sometimes lengthy hospitalizations.

The study's observations, published this month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Assn., are in stark contrast to the outcomes for humans who fall. Falls of more than six stories are almost always fatal to humans and falls by children under 15 are the most common traumatic cause of death, taking about 13,000 lives a year.

Humans who fall suffer catastrophic outcomes largely because they often tumble uncontrollably, hitting the ground head-first or at a disastrous angle. Cats are saved by their instinctive resistence to tumbling--but it is such an innate skill that veterinary experts agreed it can't be taught, transferred or in any way used to benefit humans.

New Detail to Old Lore

It has long been known that cats tend to land on their feet after a fall. They turn legs downward as if deploying landing gear as soon as they start to fall--regardless of their position when the tumble begins. This study, however, adds new detail to that phenomenon.

Once the gyroscopic turn occurs, said Dr. Wayne Whitney, the New York City vet who led the new research, a cat instinctively uses aerodynamics and its supple musculature to its advantage. In short falls, Whitney said, a cat tends to hit the ground with its legs fully extended, using its extensor muscles--the muscle groups that cause limbs to flex outward--and connective tissues as natural shock absorbers.

In longer falls, Whitney said, cats apparently spread their legs farther apart, changing aerodynamic drag in much the same way as flying squirrels. The increased drag, Whitney said, permits cats to hit the ground with the least possible force. A cat reaches its maximum impact speed, 60 m.p.h., after the equivalent of a seven-story fall.

Of the 132 cats that fell, he said, 13 fell more than nine stories. Ninety percent of the cats suffered some sort of chest injury--though most were minor and easily treated. Most of those injuries involved air escaping from the lungs into the chest cavity on impact. There was an about equal incidence of broken legs, with 39% of the cats breaking or cracking at least one bone. Four cats broke their pelvises. Ten cats had fractures of both front and rear legs.

Cats Misjudged, Fell

Only three of the 132 cats were seen falling. But Whitney said that all the falls seemed to have resulted from cats miscalculating when they turned or jumped, not paying attention during play, or becoming distracted while stalking insects or rodents. One of the observed falls occurred when the cat miscalculated while lunging at an insect.

"I think the curious nature of the cat is important here," Whitney said. "It's curious and it's naturally a daredevil. A cat will get out on a narrow ledge and take chances. A lot of the time, a dog won't do that. And younger cats are more active and more curious, and they get themselves out on a limb, so to speak, a little more often."

Two of the New York cats fell together--an indication, Whitney said, that they had been playing and tumbled when things got a little frisky. Most of the cats in the study were comparatively young--64% were younger than 3. But some of them were as old as 16.

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