Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Paranoid Future Pet Owner Syndrome

Recently I seem to have spent a lot of time scrolling through the RSPCA Leeds web page looking for cats with broken, injured or missing legs. It's not a sadistic pastime, a strange injury fetish or even because I have a desire to take in the less desirable. Living on the Twelfth floor, I am sceptical as to whether it is safe to keep a cat. I have seen cats falling off the roof of my parents' house and casually walking away, dignity still intact plenty of times but that is only a two-storey house.

Little ginga cat, Simba, is crying out for a home and looks like a complete dude but I worry with an adventurous kitten's spirit, he'll decide to take a peek over our terrace, go for a stroll, get distracted by something airborne and that'll be the end of his short life. Injured/legless cats seem like the less worrying alternative and we've also contemplated fat aged cats who can't be bothered climbing but unfortunately none have captured our hearts as completely as Simba.

I was surprised today to discover that there seems to be no clear answer from the magnificent google as to whether it's safe to keep a cat on the highest floors of a block of flats. Any answers I found were anecdotal from cat owners and many seemed to focus more on whether it's humane to keep cats indoors. The only vaguely useful information I was able to ascertain came from a series of articles all homing in on one scientific study carried out in New York.

In 1987 two vets examined 132 incidences of cats falling from high-rise flat windows and published the results in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The cats were taken to a New York veterinary hospital called the Animal Medical Centre for treatment. On average the cats fell 5.5 stories and amazingly 90% survived, although many did suffer serious injuries (Two-thirds apparently required treatment, and half of that number needed lifesaving treatment). One cat allegedly survived falling from the 46th floor, bouncing off a canopy and into a flower bed, although the optimum fall height seems to be six floors.

You might think, the greater the fall the bigger the injury as I fear but according to this study, this is not the case. After analysing their findings the two vets realised that the cats' injuries worsened as the height of their drop increased BUT after seven floors this was no longer the case. Cats that had fallen from higher than seven floors, suffered less extreme injuries - the farther the cat fell, the better its chances. The vets called this phenomenon The High-Rise Syndrome.

The vets rationalised their surprising discovery by suggesting that after falling five floors or more the cats had reached a terminal velocity – a maximum downward speed of 60 miles per hour (significantly lower than a person’s 130 mph). Once reaching this max, cats relax and spread themselves out like flying squirrels, minimizing injuries.

There are a few potential flaws in this study in that it was was based solely on the cats that were brought into the hospital, not those who didn't make it so who knows what the actual death/survival ratio is. Then of course how lucky the cat is also partly influences the stats – I'm guessing those that were unfortunate enough to fall on something pointy or didn't land on four legs aren't included in the study.

According to another source, it apparently takes a normal cat about two and a half feet of free-fall to orient itself to feet-down. Cats having very flexible spines and ribcages help them to manipulate their fall using the strong muscles behind it. They are able to "swish" their spines with the help of their tails to make all four feet land on the ground, thus distributing their weight over a larger surface area than us two feeters.

The invention of high-speed cameras has given some insight into how these acrobatics actually work - the cat first tucks its front legs in and splays out its rear legs, allowing it to quickly situate its forequarters with the feet down. The procedure is then reversed so that the cat's front legs are extended and its back legs tucked in, allowing the hindquarters to quickly twist into position while the forequarters turn only slightly. The back legs then re-extend when the cat's in place and fully deployed. This is the cat's landing position and allows for limited aerodynamics, rather like a squirrel. Impact on landing is reduced by the fact cats have three joints in each leg.

In order for a cat to twist so quickly many muscles have to rapidly operate in sequence, in doing so creating tension. The tension is why six to seven stories seems to be the optimum height for a cat to fall from as it allows time to unwind and momentarily relax into free-fall before landing.

Fascinating but even after reading all this information, I'm still none the wiser as to whether it's actually safe to take in a mobile active cat. Google has let me down - without pushing a cat from the twelfth floor, I'll never be confident I'll avoid kitty tragedy. After all, pets are supposed to be like their owners and I'm painfully accident prone so what chances would any furry ward of mine have? Unless anyone can tell me otherwise...

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