The Impressive Speed and Agility of Domesticated Cats

May 2, 2016

By Linda Cole

Our domesticated feline friends share many similarities with their wild cousins, including hunting techniques and styles. Both have a deliberate way of stalking, along with incredible speed and agility when mounting an attack on their prey. It’s why domesticated cats and wild cats are considered to be top predators. Cats don’t always get their intended target, but they are calculating and often effective because of their speed and agility. Even a house cat that isn’t used to exerting herself could outrun the fastest human, Usain Bolt, in a sprinting race.

The Cheetah is the fastest land animal with a top speed of around 75 mph, but it can only hit that speed in a short spurt. Endurance isn’t in a cat’s bag of tricks. What makes domesticated cats such effective hunters is their ability to stalk, and calculate distance, depth and size of prey; their running and leaping agility also comes into play. Even while lounging in the sun, a house cat is paying attention to what’s going on around her. If she hears or sees even the slightest movement of prey, she can go from 0 to an incredible 30 mph in seconds. Cats don’t use their speed to hunt, however. It’s their leaping, pouncing and ability to control their body that catches prey. In stalking mode, a cat can freeze instantly in almost any position and patiently wait for the right moment to pounce.

Like dogs, cats are digitigrade mammals (they walk and run on their toes). With a smaller portion of the foot touching the ground, less friction is created which conserves upward energy. This translates into a very fast runner. Their speed and forward motion comes from powerful back legs that act like springs and can catapult them up to six times their own height from a standing or sitting start. At a walk, cats move both of their right legs together, then both of their left legs. When running at full speed, a cat’s back legs extend out in front of the front legs. These powerful legs give cats the ability to twist and turn on a dime, and they can stop just as fast by using the front legs for balance and as brakes.

Cats can stride at least three times their body length. The flexible backbone adds to the cat’s ability to run fast and move in ways most other animals can’t. A flexible tail helps maintain balance, and a free floating clavicle buried in muscle and not attached to bone allows for more freedom of movement in the shoulders. This makes it possible for a cat to swing the shoulders with the legs in a fluid motion that doesn’t compromise power and lets her place the front paws pretty much anywhere she wants. This is why cats are able to walk across a narrow ledge or tree branch with ease, and squeeze through small openings.

One of the cat’s most famous gravity-defying abilities is to right themselves in mid-air. NASA was so impressed with this maneuver that they partly funded a study to analyze how felines are able to pull it off. NASA thought it could help astronauts orient themselves in the zero gravity of space.

This innate self-righting reflex begins at the head. As the cat begins to fall, the head turns so she can see where and how soon she will land. The front paws are pulled close to her head and she twists her upper spine to get the head parallel to the ground in an upright position to straighten out her front half. Then the cat lowers her front legs and twists the lower spine to straighten the back half of her body. The last thing the cat does is lowers the hind legs and prepares to land on all fours, arching her back to absorb the impact as she hits the ground. Twisting to realign the body also helps slow the cat down a bit. However, even with a cat’s remarkable agility and balance, she can still be seriously injured falling from high places. In fact, it’s the most common cause of injury or death for our feline friends.

That burst of speed your cat releases when she races wildly through the house is to get rid of pent up energy. (She may also be showing off her amazing speed and agility just to impress us).

My cats devour their CANIDAE food with gusto and don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. However, if a wayward mouse ventures inside, it’s not hunger that drives the cats to hunt it down. It’s a game they instinctively play – and more times than not will win!

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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