There are many myths and stories about cats, ranging from the idea that they have nine lives to the idea that black cats are unlucky. What about the widely propagated “fact” that cats always land on their feet, even though common sense (for the most part) tells us that they are untrue?

Does this have any scientific support?

The reflex to right the cat:

Cats have an exceptionally flexible backbone and no functional clavicle (collarbone), which gives them an intrinsic ability known as the “righting reflex” to orient themselves in the air and land on their feet. When a cat is in the air, it will use its inner ear or vision to orient itself. It will also bend at the midsection of its body so that its front rotates on a different axis than its back, tuck its front legs, and stretch its back legs to lessen inertia. When they are ready to land upright, they will stretch their front legs and tuck their back legs.

Additionally, their small stature, light bone structure, and thick fur contribute to slowing their rate of descent. In order to further reduce drag, cats will also spread their bodies out. They also have strong legs that help them absorb impact, which gives them more time to orient themselves in the air and securely land on their feet.

Dr. Lorna Whittemore (BVMS), the resident vet of Excited Cats, offers the following explanation of this reflex: “The righting reflex is evidence of the outstanding physical talents of cats. Cats have a wide range of motion in their front limbs because their shoulder blades are just musculature-attached to the chest wall. Additionally, it lessens the impact of a fall from a height.

Cats usually land on their feet, right?

It’s hardly surprising that many think cats have nine lives given the countless accounts of cats falling from really high elevations and not only surviving but also emerging relatively undamaged. In one incident, a cat survived after falling an incredible 32 floors out of an apartment window in New York City! Only two days after receiving treatment for a damaged tooth and a minor lung puncture, the cat was released to its owner.

In a 1980s investigation, veterinarians in New York City examined 132 cases of cats that had fallen from buildings as high as 32 floors; 90% of them had survived, albeit 39% needed emergency care. Seventeen of the cats had to be put to death by their owners, who in the majority of cases cited financial hardship rather than serious injuries as the reason for doing so. Eight of the remaining 115 perished from shock and chest wounds.

Having said that, a cat’s capacity to correct itself and always land on its feet is influenced by a variety of conditions. For instance, overweight cats are more prone to land hard because they lack the suppleness to correct themselves fast. The cat’s success or failure will also be greatly influenced by the height of the fall.

It’s interesting to note that cats who fall from higher elevations—such as five to seven stories—tend to have more injuries than those who simply fall from a few. They have more time to right themselves in the air, which explains why. Cats that fell from heights exceeding seven floors in the NYC study had a lower mortality rate than cats that fell from two to six levels.

Cats don’t always land perfectly, though, and even if they almost always do so on their feet, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they won’t suffer harm in the process.