Cat’s are excellent jumpers and a great at gauging risk but despite the care they usually take to gauge height and distance before making an unfamiliar leap -they can and do make mistakes. A leap upwards to a ledge or a table-top can end in an undignified scramble with the back legs and a desperate heave with the front if the distance has been misjudged. Slippery kitchen top surfaces are notorious for falling an otherwise well-judged spring.
It is then that the observer can see just how powerful the front claws and hind legs are as the cat hauls itself up. If it fails it will twist to one side and jump down looking crestfallen. An ambitious jump down from a difficult surface – typically, a steeply pitched roof, can result in a heavy landing, followed by vigorous shaking and licking of the paws. Cats do not like to make mistakes, and even less to have been seen to make mistakes. After such an incident goes to some trouble to restore their dignity. I didn’t fall, I meant to do that, now please leave me alone whilst I have a quick calming and dignity recapturing wash.
Landing on its Feet
Of all the cat’s athletic skills, its ability to right itself in a fall is one of the most remarkable. They are so successful at it because of an organ called the vestibular apparatus which is located in the inner ear and is particularly well developed in cats. This monitors all head movements and relates them to the position of the other parts of the body so that the cat always has complete spatial awareness. It consists of a series of linked chambers and canals containing fluid and lined with millions of microscopic hairs linked to nerve endings connected to the brain. An alteration in the position of the head causes the fluid to move and the hairs move in the current, signalling the change to the brain’s information centre. Any sudden change in the relation of the head to body triggers reflex responses to correct any imbalance.
When a cat falls, the vestibular apparatus sends impulses to the brain which results in the neck muscles positioning the head horizontally. The cat can then twist from this fixed point so that it will land on its feet with its back arched to provide a shock-absorber. Kittens are born with this self-righting reflex, and it can be seen in operation as soon as young kittens start to tumble and play with their mother and with each other.
The cat’s tail is like a rudder
The cat’s tail is a vital tool in many of the movements in a cat’s life. It acts as a balance in negotiating a narrow fence or wall or taking up position on a post. In the self-righting action described above, it again operates as a balance to ensure a feet first landing. The tail can even be used as a rudder to trim the direction of a jump down into a confined space.