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.
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.