Insane Cat Reflexes You Didn’t Know About

kittens jumping in the air

“A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.” Yes, it’s a cliche, but to paraphrase Dickens, the wisdom of our ancestors is in the proverb. We all know that cats are some of the most lithe and supple creatures on the planet. But why? What’s the science behind the way cats slip off railings, twirl from branches, or zip out from under cars, usually with nary a scratch to show? Read on for some little-known factoids about what makes cat reflexes death-defyingly fast.

1. Right Paw, Left Paw

cat waving its paw in the air

Because cats sport Muhammad Ali-esque reaction times, you might assume that all cats are ambidextrous. Actually, your tabby or Manx is likely either right-pawed or left-pawed. According to some studies, 50% of cats favor their right paw, 40% their left paw, while only 10% are ambidextrous. Researchers have also found that female cats (and dogs) tend to be right-pawed while their male counterparts are left-pawed. But no matter their gender, cats get a lot of their sense of balance from which paw they put forth first – a sense of balance that’s among the best in the animal kingdom.

2. Uncanny Flexibility

flexible cat

In addition to having superb balance, cats are also mind-bendingly flexible. The secret is in their spines. Extremely elastic discs that cushion the spaces between the vertebrae of their spines allow cats to rotate as much as 180 degrees right or left. (By comparison, humans can only turn about 90 degrees each way.) Kittens generally master the righting reflex – the ability to right themselves midair – at 7 weeks old. They rely on the vestibular apparatus in their inner ear to orient themselves so that they can turn and face downward even in free-fall. Make no mistakes: Cats are not invincible. They can be injured in falls. But studies have shown that they're able to perform twist-to-land maneuvers in as little space as 12-inch drops.

3. Feline Fleetness 

cat jumping off counter

Anyone who’s lived with cats knows that they’re spry and nimble, yes – but also astonishingly lazy. On average, cats sleep for about 15 hours per day. (And often clock a 20-hour nap within a 24-hour time frame.) Cats zonk out so much because they’re natural hunters. While cats do dream and experience REM cycles, they sleep lightly, ready to pounce the instant they're awake. When they are up, a house cat can hit top speeds of 30 mph – 3 mph faster than Olympian Usain Bolt’s average speed.

Watching your cat knead its paws as its basks in a slant of light, you’re probably inclined to think it’s adorable, and you’re right. But the reason it has such insane reflexes is because it’s perhaps nature’s perfect predator. We’re talking about a creature that can jump nine times its height from a standing start. (That would be like a 6-foot man springing atop a 54-foot building from the sidewalk at a whim.) Lucky for us, your house-cat is probably only 9 inches tall and stalks mice and voles rather than, you know, you. So, cuddle up with it, and fear not! If it falls off the bed, it’s likely to trade in one of those many lives so that it can nuzzle you the rest of the night.
Have you ever seen your cat show off its insane feline reflexes? Share your story in the comments section at the end of this article.



Christine Whitt
Christine Whitt

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2 Responses

Susan H
Susan H

October 23, 2018

We once found our tabby cat stranded ON TOP of the kitchen cabinets, 11’ off the floor and with no discernible way to have gotten there. We finally figured out what he had done when we noticed the pantry door standing open: he had jumped from floor to counter to top of the fridge, and from there to the top of the pantry door (an 8’ tall door mind you, only 2” wide, and from there to the top of the cabinets a couple of feet away. Sure enough – when we checked, there were tiny claw marks on the top of the door! He was a curious explorer all his life.

Johanna Gibbs
Johanna Gibbs

October 19, 2018

We adopted a cat while living in the United Arab Emirates. Khalifa’ mother was a feral cat; she left him at the door of our flat when he was tiny because he had several infections. We took him to a vet and he was cured of the leg infection. Unfortunately, the vet had to amputate his tail. I did a lot of research and concluded that Khalifa is a Desert Mao cat, a breed that developed over thousands of years on the Arabian Peninsula. I have seen him jump at least nine feet, straight up! In the UAE, we had wardrobes instead of closets, and he would jump from the floor to the top of the wardrobe. We called him our flying cat because of his amazing jumping ability.

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