The injuries incurred by cats when they fall from tall buildings (and survival rate)

Quite a lot of people think that domestic cats can fall off tall buildings and survive without injury because they break their fall and reach a terminal velocity quite quickly by fanning out their limbs. In fact, there is an optimal height at which a cat can fall in order to minimise injuries but they are hurt often and some die, the truth be told.

High-rise syndrome in cats and the injuries incurred and survival rate.

A study (see base of page) looked into the consequences of what is euphemistically called by the experts “high-rise syndrome”. In layman’s term it means cats falling out of windows or off balconies from apartments in apartment towers from about the 10th floor onwards.

It is remarkable how many cats do end up falling out of apartments. One of the world’s centres of high-rise syndrome is Singapore where 80% of the population live in publicly owned high-rise apartments which are rented from the local authority and where cats were, until recently, forbidden! Ironically dogs were allowed and still are.

RELATED: Singapore: 250 cats fall from high rise apartments every year. Fifty percent die on impact.

Dogs rarely fall out of high rise buildings which begs the question why do cats suffer from high-rise syndrome are not dogs? The general opinion is that dogs are less curious than cats and therefore don’t find their way out to balconies and window ledges and also dog owners are more cautious about keeping their dogs away from open windows and balconies. And thirdly, some cats fall from buildings because they’ve climbed the building on the outside due to their extreme abilities. That’s quite rare. Also dogs do occasionally fall from buildings.

So what are the injuries suffered by cats when they fall off an apartment block? A study looked at 132 cats over a five-month period with an average age of 2.7 years. This indicates that the cats were young which squares up with what you might think about the reasons behind high-rise syndrome namely that young cats are more inquisitive and less careful and indeed more reckless and therefore more likely to fall off buildings.

  • 90% of the cats suffered some form thoracic trauma. He thoracic area of a cat is the thorax area namely the chest.
  • 68% of the cats suffered pulmonary contusions. A contusion is a bruise caused by direct blow to the cat’s body. And the pulmonary area is the chest i.e. lung area.
  • 63% suffer from pneumothorax which is the presence of feral cats in the cavity between the lungs and the chest wall which causes the collapse of the lungs.
  • 55% suffered from abnormal breathing.
  • 57% incurred an injury to their face described as ‘facial trauma’.
  • 39% incurred fractures to their limbs.
  • 24% were in shock after the fall. In medical terms, shock mean something different to being shocked. It refers to not enough blood circulating around the body and it is life-threatening and a medical emergency.
  • 18% had what is called “traumatic luxations”. This is dislocation of joints due to trauma i.e. hitting the ground at high speed.
  • 17% suffered from hard palate fractures inside the mouth. The palate is at the top of the mouth which is cracked when the cat hits the ground because their head hits the ground. The jaw makes contact with the ground transmitting the impact through the mouth.
  • 17% were hypothermic which means that the cats suffered from the medical condition called hypothermia which is a medical emergency occuring when the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat resulting in a dangerously low body temperature.
  • 17% ended up with cracked teeth.
  • 37% required emergency veterinary treatment after the fall.
  • 30% needed nonurgent treatment.
  • 30% were observed and did not need any treatment.
  • 90% of the cats survived the fall.
  • 10% died as a result of the fall. Compare this with Singapore (see link above) where 50% died on impact.

I don’t have information about the distance fallen in these examples. Obviously the distance is a factor in the injuries incurred but sometimes cats can fall from very great heights and survive whereas others can fall over a relatively short distance and die. It depends on many circumstances including whether they fall on a hard surface such as concrete or on soft ground such as grass and leaves.

RELATED: Longest non-lethal fall in feline history

Perhaps the key overriding factor is that 1 in 10 cats die when they fall from apartment windows in high-rise buildings in this study.

The lesson to be learned is obvious: cat owners need to be as vigilant as dog owners when leaving windows open or allowing their cat to go onto a balcony if one exists.

The study: Whitney WO, Mehlhaff CJ. High-rise syndrome in cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 1987 Dec;191(11):1399-1403. PMID: 3692980.

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16 facts about high-rise syndrome in cats

Here are 16 facts about high-rise syndrome in domestic cats. In some parts of the world high-rise syndrome is relatively common and those places will be conurbations where there is a high human population density such as Singapore.

Cat trapped and saved from falling off high rise building
Cat trapped and saved from falling off high rise building. Image in public domain.

RELATED: Longest non-lethal fall in feline history.

  1. “High-rise syndrome” refers to a collection of injuries sustained by cats when they fall from buildings, normally apartments.
  2. Domestic cats can fall from apartments that are several or more stories above ground level for various reasons including playing while near an open window or chasing an insect on a balcony or misjudging the nature of the material on which they are balancing.
  3. Domestic cats are hardwired to climb trees with expertise in which they have a good grip because of the nature of the surface on which they are climbing. But when they are climbing up or along a slippery balcony railing, they may make misjudgments and fall.
  4. The severity of the injuries that domestic cats incur when falling from a great height do not always increase with the height that they fall. There is not a linear progression which directly links the height of their fall with more severe injuries.
  5. After seven stories high the number and severity of their injuries reaches a threshold and it may even decrease if they fall from a higher window or balcony.
  6. The cat that falls from eight eight floors up may have a greater chance of surviving than falling from three stories up.
  7. The reason is because domestic cats reach a terminal velocity of about 60 mph when falling from more than seven stories up as they fan out their bodies and at that speed their inner ear vestibular apparatus tells them to relax and therefore when they impact the ground their weight is more evenly distributed and they are more flexible causing less injury. Up until terminal velocity the limbs are more rigid because the vestibular apparatus tells the cat that they are falling at speed.
  8. Sometimes cats are lucky enough to incur minor injuries after a long fall.
  9. More than 80% of Singaporeans live in high-rise apartment blocks (HDB) and the SPCA sees about five instances of apartment cats falling from various places weekly. This amounts to around 250 cats annually. About 50% of the cats in Singapore who fall from a great height die on impact with the ground. I suspect this is partly due to the nature of the surface with which they make impact.
  10. High-rise syndrome describes the range of injuries that cats offer if they survive the fall. Almost all of them incur some type of thoracic trauma. This means the part of the body of the cat between the neck and the abdomen. The injuries might include pulmonary contusions and air in the chest and outside of the lungs.
  11. On impact the lower jaw can hit the upper jaw which causes facial wounds and fractures to the jaw or hard palate.
  12. There might be consequential bleeding from the nose and broken teeth.
  13. There might be fractures to one or both rear legs and less frequently to the small bones of the front legs.
  14. The chest injuries are the most life-threatening and require emergency treatment but if treated quickly thoracic injuries need not be life-threatening. Once the cat is breathing normally the other injuries can be assessed.
  15. Prevention is better than cure and cat caregivers living in high-rise apartments should never allow their cats to go out onto a balcony unsupervised or near an open window while playing with them.
  16. Some cat caregivers are overconfident about their domestic cat companion’s abilities and awareness of the dangers. Domestic cats are fearless when it comes to heights. Often, they don’t recognise the dangers. It’s up to caregivers to take preventative action.

RELATED: Two cats fall out of a 13th floor apartment simultaneously and are killed.

Singapore HBD flats
Singapore HBD flats. Image in public domain.

Cat has conversation with hooded crow on high rise building
Cat has conversation with hooded crow on high rise building

Cat Falling

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