Feline High-rise Syndrome

We know that cats are fascinated with heights and windows. The domestic cat is born with a great climbing skill acquired from his wild cat ancestor and he likes to look out of windows because he is inquisitive and because he is looking at prey.

Feline high-rise syndrome

Unfortunately, the combination of these two activities can be dangerous. Cities are getting bigger. The population of people living in cities is increasing and with that there are more cats living in cities in high-rise buildings. Many apartments have balconies. Many balconies are not safe for a kitten or even an adult cat who, for a second, is careless.

Perhaps a young adult cat chases a bird on a balcony and jumps off. Perhaps a kitten is sleeping on a windowsill and the window is open or a screen is loose. You can see the potential for a catastrophe.

In the world of cats, “high-rise syndrome” refers to the injuries sustained by domestic cats who fall from tall apartment blocks. Fortunately, the domestic cat is not only a great climber but is also a great faller from enormous heights. Having self-righted mid-air, domestic cats glide like a flying squirrel fanning out their bodies to break their fall.

It may surprise some people that approximately 90% of cats survive a fall from an apartment window which is more than two stories up. The severity of the injuries are dependent upon the distance the cat falls but in an unexpected way.

When falling from the second floor to the seventh floor the cat’s injuries increase the further the cat falls. But after the seventh floor the number and severity of injuries plateau and even decrease. The conclusion is that domestic cats who fall distance of eight stories or more from a high-rise apartment block have a better chance of surviving than those falling from the third floor.

It is believed that the reason for this is because when falling from a greater height the cat is more relaxed when impacting the ground. The reason why cats are more relaxed is because the cat’s vestibular system in the inner ear switches off when the cat reaches terminal velocity at 53 mph (which occurs in a fall from 7+ stories high). When the vestibular system is switched off it is no longer sending signals to the cat that the cat is falling rapidly which would cause the cat to keep her limbs fixed and rigid – hence the limbs are more relaxed. When the cat is falling at below terminal velocity the vestibular system sends these signals causing stiffer limbs.

Having survived a fall, the injuries vary. Almost all cats experience some sort of thoracic trauma including pulmonary contusions and pneumothorax, which is air in the chest outside of the lungs.

As cats hit the ground in the upright position the lower jaw is forced against the upper jaw causing fractures and facial injuries. Typically, there will be bleeding from the nose and broken teeth as well. The cat’s legs may be broken.

Pneumothorax, is potentially the most life-threatening injury and treated as a priority. If treated promptly is not life-threatening.

Clearly the best course of action for a cat caretakers to be aware of the potential dangers of living in high-rise apartments. Prevention is better than a cure. The general advice is that a cat should never be allowed onto a balcony or near an open window. Many cat caretakers believe that their cat will never fall off a balcony because they are too smart and are aware of the dangers but this is not necessarily always the case. Sometimes cats doze off in upright positions, especially younger cats or kittens. When that happens they just fall. Or a cat might become interested in a bird or an insect and lose his concentration.

If the cat is allowed out onto a balcony, the cat should be in a harness attached to a lead to limit his movements. Sometimes cats can lose their lives on balconies without falling. A Munchkin dwarf cat was taken by a bird of prey on one occasion.

Photo by Francisco Gonzales.

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Feline High-rise Syndrome — 12 Comments

  1. This was very interesting, but once again, it is up to the owner to be responsible about their pet. I lived in Manhattan with 3 formerly feral cats and the were happier there than anywhere else because they seemed to feel like they were safe from the hard life outside. One who had always hidden for more than ten yesrs came out more and was much more siociable. The only funny thing was that he stayed on the radiators until winter when they got hot.

  2. I never knew that cats could survive a fall from a 8 storey flat although freak cases have been recorded.My two cats were and are still models of a city cat loving the life of dangerous living.”P.O.C” has photo’s and articles of my cats “Matahari” and “Matata” sitting on the window ledges,the ground being five floors below.As Michael says the danger is that cats tend to sleep on the ledge which my 7 year old Matahari loves exhibiting on the house gallery ledge.She sits on the balcony ledge and dozes, doing this twice a day, once in the morning and then late in the evening at dusk.I am a firm believer in destiny and hope that their daily habits do not endanger their life since i can’t correct this flaw in their natural behaviour.

  3. ” You wrote the topic and cat matahari proved the point about cats loving dangerous heights “! A candid photo i just removed of cat Matahari lounging at her favourite spot on the gallery ledge, 5 floors from earth.

    • She illustrates the article perfectly. I am glad she is on the page. I had forgotten how much of a good example she is of potential feline high-rise syndrome. Thanks Rudolph.

  4. My friends cat fell 11 floors and died shortly after – it was incredibly sad they said. She jumped for a pigoen. They still let their cats on the balcony with no barrier which I don’t agree with.

    I got awful news – our balconies are not safe and need to be removed and rebuilt at a huge cost. So I can’t do a serious job out there now for the cats – I was going to build stuff and put many plants but now it’s got to wait probably a very long time. This is very sad for the cats, they will suffer because of it.

    • That is crap news. It is distressing from several aspects the worst being your cats. There will be a lot of noise and disruption too. I hate that. Best of luck though to you all.

  5. Its really sad for everyone that can’t have an area for their cats. It saddens me, as I feed bad sometimes with having outside areas. I remember what it was like as I had a flat that had become I had a young kitten at the time. So had to be careful, it’s really sad what happened to your friends cat Marc. It’s sad that people still don’t protect their cats after a situation like that, but I guess people think it will happen again.

    • I meant that it won’t happen again. If I was in that situation, I would definitely be watching them a lot more.

  6. If I lived in a high rise apartment, with or without a balcony, I would be a nervous wreck.
    I would be on guard all of the time, counting heads and checking windows/screens to make sure they are secure.
    Forget about sleeping.

    • I’d be the same. I’d be super vigilant. What is surprising for me is that a lot people are pretty laid back about letting their cat go out on the balcony. I believe they think a cat will be inherently careful.

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