I heard a great story on RadioLab the other day, and I just had to submit the following experiment idea to MythBusters…
Cats that fall from the top of a 32-story building get hurt less than cats that fall from the top of a 7-story building.
Two veterinarians, Wayne Whitney and Cheryl Mehlhaff, who worked at the Midtown Veterinary Hospital, noticed that in there were a lot of cats that fell from window ledges and roofs on tall buildings in Manhattan. When they studied the data, they found that cats that fell from the 1st through 5th floors (approx. < 50 ft) were often lightly injured, and cats that fell from the 10th floor (> 100 ft) and higher were also lightly injured. However, the cats who fell from between the 5th and 10th floors (approx 50-100 ft) tended to get seriously injured.
Why was this?
One theory is that the data set is completely tainted, so the conclusion that the veterinarians drew was incorrect.
Another theory is that when cats reach terminal velocity, they relax and spread their body out like a flying squirrel. When they finally hit the ground, they belly-flop, spreading out the force of the impact across their entire body. The cats that fell from the 1st-5th floors did not reach a high enough speed to receive serious injuries. The cats that fell from the 10th story and higher were able to reach terminal velocity and relax. Those cats that fell from between the 5th and 10th floors were, by this theory, not able to reach terminal velocity and assume the “flying-squirrel” pose. These unlucky cats likely landed on their legs, breaking them.
I had heard this myth about falling cats before, and I was reminded of the story when they brought up on the “Falling” epiode on the NPR/WNYC radio program “RadioLab”, and again in a follow-up episode “Gravitational Anarchy”.
The RadioLab episode “Falling” is here:
RadioLab Falling Episode
The hilarious follow-up (RadioLab Podcast Short) is here on their “Gravitational Anarchy” episode that was released on Nov 29th 2010:
RadioLab Gravitational Anarchy Podcast Short
There is also an editorial write-up about this on HowStuffWorks.com
How Cats Survive Falls @ HowStuffWorks.com
What does a cat really do in free-fall/Zero-G?
It looks like, in a Zero-G environment, the cat just flips around and can’t get its bearings, but it landed feet-first on every single surface. When gravity starts being applied, the cat was quick to flip around and land feet-first. It looks like the cat uses the visual cue of the approaching ground, more than any other indicator, to know which direction he/she needed to point. But when the cat was just floating, it began spinning in circles and couldn’t seem to get his/her bearings.
Now I’m wondering how quickly they orient themselves in a long fall. Do they flail around until they get closer to the ground, or can they orient themselves quickly using other stimuli such as wind resistance?
Peer-Reviewed Scientific Papers
I just found the abstract from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that they were talking about in the RadioLab “Falling” and “Gravitational Anarchy” episodes:
There is also a more recent article published in the Journal of Feline Medical Surgery in 2004:
The abstract for the second paper () seems to contradict the theory in the first (that cats falling 9+ floors are injured less than those falling 4-8). Although, it doesn’t quite make that distinction, so I’ll have to read the paper.
I also found a list of articles that describe the physics and medical outcomes of falling bodies, cats and otherwise:
I’ll have to pull these articles next time my wife has plans and I can sneak away to hit the stacks at my local vet college.
Want to see this experiment on MythBusters?
As I find out more about this story and check through the papers, I will come back and update this post.