By Linda Cole
Our feline friends are capable of leaping, twisting and turning on a dime in pursuit of a mouse, bird or insect. Cat owners may also find their kitty contorted into what looks like uncomfortable sleeping positions. There is a secret behind a cat’s flexibility that allows her to twist her body to right herself most of the time during a fall, squeeze through tiny openings, change directions in mid-leap, and sleep in a distorted position. Because they are so agile and flexible, a cat’s curiosity sometimes gets them into trouble.
Felines owe their superior hunting prowess to a unique spine that gives them flexibility, explosive power, speed, grace and stealth. The cat’s vertebrae allows them to rotate and twist their spine more than most other animals. Between each individual bone in the vertebrae is an amazing elastic cushioning disc which allows cats to rotate their body 180 degrees to the right or left. In contrast, we can only rotate our hips around 90 degrees to the right or left. The human spine has 32 to 34 vertebrae, but cats have 52 or 53 vertebrae. Their limber spine also gives them the ability to turn their head and front legs in one direction while their hips and back legs are going in the opposite direction.
A flexible spine is what gives cats their acrobatic abilities, but it also contributes to their speed. The limber spine acts sort of like a suspension bridge as cats run – flexing and extending in length with each stride. Cats can hit a top speed of around 30 miles an hour, but they are sprinters and not marathoners like dogs. Unlike canines who chase down their prey, felines wait patiently and mount an ambush attack so a sprint is all that’s needed to catch a meal. Their spine alternately flexes and extends the back when running, stretching the body to maximum length, which is around three times the cat’s body length. As a cat pushes off in a new stride, her claws act like spikes to give her traction.
The front legs of cats are attached to their shoulder via a small free floating clavicle (collarbone) by only muscles instead of bones like we have. Flexible shoulder blades give felines a huge amount of freedom of movement that also helps them extend their running stride even more. A tiny clavicle and loosely attached shoulder blades makes it possible for cats to narrow their shoulders and squeeze under closed doors or into small spaces. As long as their head fits through an opening, they can get into spaces you’d think were impossible for them to fit.
The feline stride is enhanced even by the way cats walk. They are digitigrade, which means they walk and run on their toes. This gives cats a boost in speed and also lengthens their stride while allowing them to move silently. The connective tissue of a cat’s spine gives them the ability to twist and turn at will, and acts as a shock absorber to protect the back when a cat lands back on the ground or when walking over rough terrain.
Cats also have built in shock absorbers in their paws to soften landings and act as sound absorbers. The front paws can turn inward when climbing and are used for balance and to pivot. It’s the hind legs that provide a feline power.
The makeup of a cat is all about survival and catching a meal. A flexible spine not only aids felines when hunting, it also allows them to groom every part of their body to remove their scent, which could give them away to prey or predators. Their tail is an extension of the spine and acts as a counter-balance that helps them adjust their weight when walking along a narrow ledge and make sharp turns when chasing prey, whether it’s a favorite toy or actual prey.
Nature gave cats the tools they need to be highly efficient predators – flexibility, agility, speed and stealth. Pound for pound, domestic housecats are just as powerful as their big cat cousins, and more flexible.
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