Plunging Cats

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF
Sugar was back at home Thursday after falling from a window Wednesday.



By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  
March 23, 2012 

From her 19th-floor West End studio, Brittney Kirk can see clearly across the city, a commanding perch that sometimes inspires vertigo.
"I look out my window, and I think, 'It's really, really high,' '' she said. "It makes you dizzy.''
On Wednesday morning, as temperatures climbed, Kirk decided to crack open a window to give her cat, Sugar, some air while she was at work.
It was a decision she would regret. Around lunchtime, she received a bewildering and frightening message from the Animal Rescue League of Boston: They had Sugar.
``There was only one way she could have gotten out,'' Kirk said. ``I was really nervous to call back.''
But aside from some bruising on her chest, Sugar, a white domestic shorthair with a pink nose, was just fine after falling from the open window and landing on the ground, a surprisingly common result for cats who plunge from great heights.
``When she told us she lived on the 19th floor, we were pretty blown away,'' said Brian O'Connor, rescue services manager for the Animal Rescue League, who tracked Kirk down through a microchip that had been embedded in Sugar.
Research over the years into what has become called feline high-rise syndrome helps explain how cats that have fallen from even greater heights routinely survive without serious injuries.
A Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association study of 132 cats that had fallen from buildings in New York City over a five-month period in the 1980s found that 90 percent had survived. A follow-up study by researchers at the University of Zagreb in Croatia found 96 percent of 119 cats who suffered similar falls had survived.
Research has found that cats that fall four stories or less usually survive without serious injuries, as well as those that fall from nine stories or more. Those that fall between five and nine stories, however, are the ones that land in the worst shape.
The reason: Cats take about nine stories before reaching terminal velocity, when wind resistance ends the downward acceleration on their bodies. That cruising speed - of about 60 miles per hour - apparently allows them to relax, right their bodies, paws down, and assume a kind of sprawling position, like a skydiver or a flying squirrel.
Dr. Emily Pointer, medical coordinator at Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York, often sees between three and five cats a week that have taken such plunges, especially when apartment dwellers start opening windows on warm days.
Over the years, she said, she has seen hundreds of cats that have survived steep drops, many from more than 20 stories up. (She said the highest fall she is aware of is a cat that survived with little more than a chipped tooth after falling 32 stories.)
The most common injuries are bruised or punctured lungs, because cats usually land with legs stretched out horizontally, taking the impact across their bodies. More substantial injuries come when a cat does not have time to right itself or tries to brace for the blow with its paws.
``We get so, so frustrated, because we see it so commonly, and it's totally preventable,'' said Pointer, noting that treatment for spinal injuries or organ damage can cost cat owners thousands. ``It costs only a few dollars to go to the hardware store and buy a screen for your window.''
No one knows why cats plummet from buildings so often. (Dogs also fall from windows, but less frequently and usually with much worse consequences.)
``I don't think cats jump on purpose,'' Pointer said. ``They have a very strong prey drive. They may see a bird or insect, and jump for that. They may also get startled by something if they are sitting on a ledge.''
Four-year-old Sugar, who is deaf, likes to stare at objects unseen by human eyes, and has a proclivity for chasing her tail at 3 a.m. It's a mystery how she fell.
Maybe it was curiosity, or she saw something she wanted to grapple with in the clouds, Kirk said. Or it could have been jealousy, as Kirk was to be married Thursday. Or, Kirk said, ``it could have been nothing.''
What she is certain of, however, is that Sugar is lucky.
A woman on the second floor of her building spotted Sugar as she flew through the air past her window and found the cat resting on a soft patch of grass and mulch. She called building staff in the lobby.
Several people ushered Sugar inside and contacted the Animal Rescue League, which took X-rays and found only slight bruising to her lungs.
As Kirk appreciated her cat back at home Thursday, she said it was hard to tell anything had happened, except that Sugar appeared to be drowsy from pain medication.
``She's a tough little kitty,'' Kirk said.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @davabel.