Cats have a reputation for enjoying heights. They are also known to “always land on their feet”. Experts say that heights are actually essential for your cat’s well-being, but some cats don’t like them. 

Are cats afraid of heights?

Most cats love heights. In fact, they need them to feel safe and get enough physical and mental stimulation. However, just like humans, some cats can be afraid of heights. 

Why Cats Like Heights

The first true cat was the Proailurus. Many of them lived in forests or rainforests. They would use their claws to climb trees. They climbed into the high branches for two reasons. 

The first is safety. Few predators could reach the cat in the safety of the trees. They also climbed for hunting. Being up high gives a great vantage point. The cat could survey the area, and spot potential prey long before they could  see it on the ground. 

Today’s indoor cats don’t need to hide from predators, and they aren’t required to hunt for their meals. However, these instincts are still present. 

Compared to our other beloved pet, dogs, cats have maintained more of their instincts. We have domesticated dogs. Today’s domestic dogs are much different from wild wolves or coyotes. 

Cats, however, are much closer to their origins. When you watch your cat stalk a string or toy and pounce, it’s easy to imagine them pouncing on their prey. Cat lovers often believe that cats have trained us, instead of the other way around. 

Ground vs. Height Preference

To say all cats love heights would be untrue. We can say that most cats enjoy heights. However, each cat has its own personality and preferences. Some cats are truly afraid of heights. However, some simply prefer to keep their feet on the ground. 

Cats enjoy hiding for several reasons. They will hide when they are scared or stressed. However, they will also go to their special spot when they want to be alone or to simply relax. 

It’s important for a cat to have a few places to hide. Some cats prefer heights, while others prefer a place on the ground. In fact, cats should be given both types of spaces. 

Cats who enjoy heights may find themselves on top of your refrigerator or a tall shelf. Some seem to be thrill seekers, walking on tight ropes like clotheslines or a deck railing. 

Other cats will hide behind your tv or under your bed. They may enjoy enclosed spaces, like laundry baskets or boxes. They may also burrow under your blankets. 

Most cats will use hiding places on the ground and up high, but will use one or the other more often. Some cats have a stronger preference. They may only want places on the ground, or may only be comfortable when they are high. 

How far can cats fall?

It’s natural to be curious about just how far a cat can fall without injury. After all, cats seem to have an uncanny ability to land on their feet. 

How Do Cats Survive Falls? 

When a cat begins to falls, they twist in mid air, positioning themselves so they land on their feet. This protects their vital organs and head from the majority of the impact. 

Surprisingly, a longer fall can be safer for a cat than a short fall. Falls from 1 to 2 stories don’t always give the cat time to position themselves feet first, which can cause serious injuries when they hit the ground. 

When they fall from 6 stories or less, they stiffen their legs. This often results in broken legs when they hit the ground, because the legs absorb the impact. 

When they fall from more than 6 stories, they have a special technique. They stretch, spreading out their arms and legs. Their body and skin essentially acts as a parachute, keeping them from gaining too much speed as they fall. 

When a human falls, they quickly gain speed. Terminal velocity is the maximum speed an object will reach during a freefall. Once terminal velocity is  reached, a higher height makes little difference. The object will hit the ground at the maximum speed.

Cats parachuting ability allows them to freefall at a terminal velocity of 65 mph, while a human will gain twice that speed before they hit the ground, and hit with 4 times the force. 

How High is Too High for a Cat?

There’s no exact amount for how high a cat can fall from and walk away. There are stories of cats falling more than 30 stories and surviving. Current research suggests that it’s common for cats to fall 20 stories, or 200 feet, and survive with little or no injury. 

Of course, the surface the cat lands on makes a difference as well. Landing on grass will be much softer than landing on concrete. 

Do some cats have a fear of heights?

Yes. Despite most cats love of heights, and the instinctual drive for them, some cats are scared of heights. Young and elderly cats are more likely to be scared of heights, but it can also happen because of a previous negative experience. Also, some cats prefer to seek safety on the ground rather than up high. Let’s take a closer look at why some cats are afraid of heights. 

Kittens

You’ve probably seen a toddler taking their first tentative steps. They are learning how to walk and use coordination. They can easily be thrown off by different terrain, even going from carpet to grass. Kittens are similar.

They cannot walk or see when they born. At two weeks, kittens begin to walk. They are uncoordinated, just like human toddlers. By 4 weeks, they can run and play. They begin to be coordinated to climb and jump at 6 weeks. 

Older kittens may still be learning and tentative. They are still building their coordination skills and gaining confidence. 

Ataxia

Ataxia causes incoordination. This can occur in the head, torso, or legs. Some cats have ataxia in all three areas. Proprioceptive ataxia causes the cat to not know where they are in space. This makes movements difficult and uncoordinated. Vestibular ataxia causes a loss of balance, because the vestibular system malfunctions. The last type occurs in the cerebellum. These cats often have exaggerated movements and tremors. 

Ataxia can have many causes. Injuries to the brain, ear, or spinal cord can cause ataxia. Structural abnormalities or birth defects are another cause. Diseases, including tumors and distemper can also cause ataxia. 

A cat with ataxia will be unsteady on their feet. They may stagger, as if they are drunk. Some types can also cause tremors. A cat with ataxia will rightly have a fear of heights, because they don’t have proper control over their body. Without the balance necessary to navigate high places, the cat will instinctively avoid them. 

Senior Cats

Senior cats will sometimes fear heights as well. This is typically caused by age related loss of coordination or movement issues. As your cat ages, they will become less agile. Their joints get stiffer. Their reflexes will slow. They may also lose some of their balance and coordination. 

A senior cat who is experiencing these issues will keep their feet on the ground for their safety. 

Negative Association 

Negative associations can also cause your cat to dislike heights. Cats have a strong associative memory. For example, when your cat hops into your lap and rubs against you, you will likely pet her. The cat will quickly learn that hopping in your lap results in something they like, being petted. 

This also works with negative experiences. If your cat was scared or harmed when they were up high, they may fear heights. It could be something directly related to heights, like being harmed or scared due to a fall. It’s also possible for it to have nothing to do with heights.

Your cat is on the refrigerator and a car drives by honking their horn. Your cat is startled by the loud noise. Even though the experience had nothing to do with the height of the fridge, the cat may avoid heights in the future. 

Do cats know how far they can fall?

Yes. Cats have excellent survival instincts. It’s instinctual for a cat to seek out high places, and to know how high they can jump from safely. When a cat is injured during a fall, it’s nearly always an accidental fall. It’s rarely because they jump from a place that’s too high. 

How often do cats hurt themselves from a fall?

Cats fall more often than most owners realize. In fact, the term “high rise syndrome” has been given to cats who accidentally fall from buildings. 

When cats are in a natural environment, unintentional falls are rare. A cat will not jump from a height that they can’t handle, so injuries from a jump are very rare. A fall, however, is accidental. 

Cats have the coordination and claws to navigate different terrain, including trees. However, they do not get good purchase on plastic or metal. This is why they fall from man-made materials much more often than natural areas. 

How Does High-Rise Syndrome Happen?

High-rise syndrome often occurs because a cat falls out of a window. Cats love curling up in a nice cozy window. They love the warmth and the view of the outdoors. However, when the window is open, the cat can easily fall. Terraces are another common culprit. The cat may loose traction on concrete or metal, falling from the terrace or railing. 

Sleeping Cats

The other common reason cats fall is falling in their sleep. Cats often sleep in high areas because it provides a sense of safety. In the wild, high areas keep cats safe from many of their natural predators. It’s no surprise that our domestic cats would also want to snooze off the ground.

Cats enter a state of deep sleep, known as REM, just as humans do. Just like humans and dogs, they can also move around in their sleep. If they are sleeping from a precarious perch, this can cause them to fall. 

There’s also a danger when waking up from sleep. It takes cats a moment to wake up and regain their coordination. Have you ever tried waking up and immediately hopping out of bed? You may have found that your body didn’t cooperate completely. When a cat is up high, this can cause them to fall. 

What to Do After a Fall?

If your cat has a fall, it’s best to get a checkup. Some injuries are obvious, like a broken leg. However, internal injuries can occur due to a fall, and they can be impossible to spot on your own. 

If you want to avoid an unnecessary vet trip, you’ll need to monitor them for a few hours after the fall. If your cat shows signs of pain, or disorientation, take them to the vet immediately. This also applies if your cat lost consciousness, even for a moment. 

Next, check for areas of the body that cause the cat pain. Gently rub your hand over their body, and watch for any reactions that indicate pain. Check for blood as well. If there’s an injury to the head, you may see blood from the ears or nose. This is a sign you should get them to the vet quickly. 

Author

I created and currently run Kitty Cat Tips, the website that you can go to when you have questions about your cat's behavior. It's my hope that you find Kitty Cat Tips to be a helpful resource. It is also my hope that it will help you to improve your relationship with your cat. You can read more about me and my website here.