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So here's the premise.

  1. A cat reaches its terminal velocity after around 10meters of free fall.
  2. A cat can survive a landing from a speed equal to its terminal velocity.
  3. Therefore a cat can survive a fall from any height.

This seems actually quite feasible and would be tremendous if it holds some truth in the majority of cases. I guess there are plenty of animals that can survive their own terminal velocity but a cat somehow just seems too close to home, too familiar.

I also realise that this is a difficult claim to prove or falsify as throwing cats out of windows for experimental purposes doesn't seem the most moral thing. Maybe a collated record of accidents? But that's not too scientific.

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It depends on whether you mean is it possible, or can you expect a given cat to survive a fall. All I know is that my ex had a cat fall from the window of her high rise apartment and it splattered on the sidewalk. –  psusi May 20 '11 at 19:08
A good experiment would be dropping a cat from a balloon at the edge of the atmosphere :) Would it survive? –  Chris Dennett May 21 '11 at 1:24
@ChrisDennett Doesn't sound like a good experiment to me, since the cat could suffocate or freeze to death. Just establish the terminal velocity and don't go any higher than you need to reach it. –  romkyns Jul 30 '12 at 9:48
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2 Answers

up vote 28 down vote accepted

As was brough up on in Is the use of parachutes supported by peer-reviewed papers? Where Andrew Grimm pointed to a study from 1987 which is widely reported (it's paywalled so I can't check myself) to say that not only do cats survive terminal velocity, but that their chance of survival increase over some shorter distances. That said the actual study cites that the cats falling from buildings had a 90% survival rate (after treatment), but also a lot of injuries. From the abstract:

High-rise syndrome was diagnosed in 132 cats over a 5-month period. The mean age of the cats was 2.7 years. Ninety percent of the cats had some form of thoracic trauma. Of these, 68% had pulmonary contusions and 63% had pneumothorax. Abnormal respiratory patterns were evident clinically in 55%. Other common clinical findings included facial trauma (57%), limb fractures (39%), shock (24%), traumatic luxations (18%), hard palate fractures (17%), hypothermia (17%), and dental fractures (17%). Emergency (life-sustaining) treatment, primarily because of thoracic trauma and shock, was required in 37% of the cats. Nonemergency treatment was required in an additional 30%. The remaining 30% were observed, but did not require treatment. Ninety percent of the treated cats survived.

The Straight Dope details how far the cats fell which mentions terminal velocity:

But here's the weird part. When the vets analyzed the data they found that, as one would expect, the number of broken bones and other injuries increased with the number of stories the cat had fallen — up to seven stories. Above seven stories, however, the number of injuries per cat sharply declined. In other words, the farther the cat fell, the better its chances of escaping serious injury.

The authors explained this seemingly miraculous result by saying that after falling five stories or so the cats reached a terminal velocity — that is, maximum downward speed — of 60 miles per hour. Thereafter, they hypothesized, the cats relaxed and spread themselves out like flying squirrels, minimizing injuries. This speculation is now widely accepted as fact.

Although the Straight Dope is also careful to point out that perhaps the reason why more terminal velocity cats appear to survive is that the one that didn't land so gracefully wasn't brought into the emergency room and as such the statistics could be scewed.

A more recent study from 2004 cites the previous study as well as several others. The cats in this study had a higher survival rate:

High-rise syndrome was more frequent during the warmer period of the year. 96.5% of the presented cats, survived after the fall.

It also go into a rather deep detail on various injuries sustained by the cats in all the studies, also stating cats don't reach terminal velocity until after the 6th floor and reaches the same conclusion as the previous studies:

This substantiates the theory that cats falling at least seven stories flex their limbs so that truncal injuries are more common, while cats falling from distances lower than seven stories extend their limbs, the consequence being a greater incidence of limb fractures.

Somewhat interestingly and related it cites a study on high rise syndrome in dogs from 1993 that says dogs cannot survive a fall from more than 6 stories.

If we want to investigate further perhaps we should ask Disney to record a movie on the life of wild cats.

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So... the lesson is to put the cat in a bag before dropping it from a high-rise. Got it. –  MrHen May 20 '11 at 14:59
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In the parachute question, the accepted answer noted that a few individuals who fell 5,000 metres or even 10,000 metres have survived.

If a human can fall that far, it's plausible that a cat falling that far can potentially survive. But there's a big difference between "can" and "definitely will".

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