“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
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
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
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.
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