When cats climb, and fall

22:50, Mar 26 2012

Yesterday I watched my elderly cat jump from a table to the floor. Even at his age, he barely makes a sound, landing just so, cushioning the impact with joints that are nature's finest shock absorbers on a body that's built not just to climb, but to fall. Even from a skyscraper.

The other day, a cat fell from his owner's 19th-floor apartment in Boston, and survived. Sugar the year-old cat hit a patch of mulch, bounced, and landed on his snow-white paws. An animal rescuer said the soft landing was probably no accident: Sugar would have been able to glide a little and slow his fall using his "surplus" fur, aiming for the mulch rather than the concrete.

Then, according to biologists, the muscles of Sugar's slightly splayed legs would have spread out the force of the fall and spared his bones from breaking.

Now 19 storeys is a long way. The news story doesn't estimate the distance Sugar fell, but New Zealand apartment buildings with that number of storeys have a roof line of about 60 metres.

Sugar had his share of luck, that's for sure, but he's far from alone in surviving a big fall. A 1987 study of cats that fell from a high-rise building and were taken to a New York emergency clinic found a 90 per cent survival rate. One cat that fell 32 storeys on to concrete suffered only a chipped tooth and collapsed lung and was back home two days later.

In fact, the bigger fall may give the cat more time to right itself in the air and prepare for a landing - giving it more chance of surviving than if it had fallen from a lower height.

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Such is the miraculous feline body. We know cats are great climbers, and that's because their ancestors lived in trees. Trees are where they often found their prey and also where they could run for safety. You need claws, balance and good muscles to climb a tree (and we know cats have all those) but also when you live in a tree, at some stage you're going to fall. If you can land safely then you survive, and that drives the evolution of the amazing paws, joints and tails of cats, as well as their incredible instincts.

So when you see your cat scaling your bookcase, or clawing up the drapes to take a smug position on the pelmet, you're seeing those ancient abilities turned to domestic use. When you see puss surveying the back garden from a high branch, she's reliving the jungle habits of her forebears. (Getting down again can be a challenge, as her claws are pointing the wrong way for her to get a grip while descending; she might have to do it in a sprint, or turn herself around and ladder her way ingloriously to the ground.)

Those cats. They sure can climb, can't they?

Even at the age of 21, Chloe can make her way to the warmth and panorama offered by roof tiles.

A cat's indoor jungle gym might seem a refined version of a tree in the wild, but it can satisfy the urge to climb. In this case, Oscar manages the climb despite his blindness. Meanwhile, Kitkat has scaled a post and placed himself out of reach yet in perfect position to see everything.

Devon Rex Lulu has all the feline climbing tools.

Demetri the Tonkinese surveys his suburban territory.

Amber is fearless of heights.

Shelby has only sky above.

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