There’s a one-word answer that solves the mystery as to how cats evolved the ability to right themselves in midair and land on their paws: trees. Cats have all the tools for climbing, such as claws, strong legs and sleek bodies. It is believed that the ancestors of today’s domesticated cats therefore spent a fair amount of time climbing trees. Falling out of a tree could obviously spell disaster, so cats over the millennia evolved an ability known as “air righting.”
Roger Tabor, author of the book Understanding Cat Behavior, explains that this skill is a reflex action. Looking at a cat right itself, you wouldn’t notice all of the motions involved. But when you view it in slow motion, you would note that it’s a three-part process.
1. The cat turns its head and the front part of its body so that both are facing downward. At this point, the cat has a better look at where it’s going.
2. The cat twists around the back half of its body.
3. The cat stretches out its limbs and braces itself for the landing.
Tabor also mentions that a cat’s sense of vision combined with special features of the inner ear allow the feline to have an incredible sense of balance. As a result, cats can also navigate fences with ease, not to mention home shelving units.
Even cats have their limits, though. Often, scared cats will climb very tall trees, only to discover that they may not be able to get back down without injuring themselves. The previously mentioned air righting and balance skills may not be enough to overcome the force with which the cat could land on the ground from such heights.
It’s far better to enjoy watching your cat play safely on an in-home kitty tower.