How high can cats jump?

Cats are well known for their ability to jump. In fact, many pet owners get frustrated by cats jumping onto kitchen surfaces, seeking higher ground, sometimes even knocking objects over. It is, however, a natural behavior derived from their wild cat ancestry – but it perhaps isn’t so well suited to domesticated household pet cats today.

This article will investigate how high cats can jump, looking into factors that determine jump height and how this can differ between species and breeds.

Wild cats

In the wild, big cats live in packs. Male pack members are often the strongest and fastest in the group – this applies to many mammals in the animal kingdom. The role of the male is generally to protect the pack and their territory, using his size and strength to fend of other animals as necessary. By contrast, the role of female pack members is to care and provide for any young cubs. In lion populations, however, the females are generally the better-skilled hunters in packs, implying high speed and agility.

With domesticated cats, any agility difference influenced by gender is not well-studied. It likely plays a less significant role than in wild cat populations because there is generally no need for domesticated cats to predate or defend. They lead an entirely different lifestyle to big cats in the wild. Nonetheless much of their ancestor’s evolutionary design is still evident in domestic cats today, thus enabling them, nevertheless, to maintain relatively high levels of agility and a high-speed capability.

Anatomy

The anatomy of cats is well-designed to facilitate jumping. Depending on the species, some cats can jump long distances horizontally, whereas others, including many domestic cats, can reach great heights. They have strong legs, in particular long hind limbs, as studied by Harris and Steudel (2002). Together with a strong and flexible spine, this supports their ability to jump. And not only to jump, but also to incorporate complex, agile movement. In between feline spinal vertebrae are fibrocartilaginous discs, which provide extra suppleness.

Furthermore, cat limbs are well-designed to absorb impact upon landing. Together with an instinctive righting reflex, which enables cats to orient themselves correctly before landing, these features help to reduce the chance of injury, thereby enhancing the jumping capability of felines. These findings were discussed by Becker (2015) and Wu et al (2019). Cats’ tails are also vital, aiding balance during motion. And cats’ claws may also contribute to their agility and movement, enabling grip to provide traction prior to jumping.

Factors influencing jump distance

Work by O’Malley (2019) confirmed that domestic cats are generally able to jump six times their body length in height. This distance is influenced by many factors including age, breed, weight, general health and their motivation for movement.

The age of a cat is, of course, a significant factor. During their first 2 months, kittens are generally still going through bone, muscle and joint development. Many changes take place during this time as young kittens learn proper limb placement and coordination – as studied by Bateson and Turner (2000). A cats’ ability to jump also develops during this time; and jumping takes practice. Kittens will likely be able to jump from an early age; however, they will not yet have the strength, coordination and balance to reach their maximum potential. By contrast, older cats are more likely to suffer from joint problems (e.g. arthritis) and other age-related issues, all potentially reducing their general state of agility.

Different breeds of domestic cats are, of course, bred with different intentions. This naturally has an impact on their ability to jump, hunt, run etc. Some breeds are far faster and more agile than others, better able to catch prey mice, for example. By contrast, bigger, bulkier, longer-haired breeds are generally less agile. This relates to their weight and size, which of course impacts the heights that they can reach when jumping. According to studies by Becker (2015), the most agile breeds include Siamese, Bengal and Abyssinian cats; whereas those less motivated to move and jump include Maine Coon cats.

Domestication

As discussed, the domestication of cats has, of course, influenced their natural agility. Compared to big cats in the wild, pet cats are generally provided everything they need by their owners – this includes food, water and a comfortable, safe space to sleep. Thus, there is no inherent need for them to race about and jump to higher ground – unless of course your breed is bred to do so! It is generally true, however, that domestic cats do still seek high spaces when possible – be it the kitchen table, a work surface or even on top of the fridge.

Many cat toys are designed to encourage the natural behaviours of cats – e.g. sticks with feathers on the end stimulate their chase and jump instinct, whilst many toy towers enable house cats to climb up posts and reach a comfortable spot. Whilst it is generally not essential for pet cats to be up high, it perhaps provides a sense of security, allowing them to observe and evaluate their surroundings from a seemingly safe space.

Conclusion

Cats can evidently reach significant heights when jumping – that is both wild and domestic cats. Jump height is influenced by many factors, but the average height that domestic cats are generally capable of reaching is approximately six times their own body length. The record for the greatest distance jumped by a pet cat was achieved in 2018 by Waffle the Warrior; he jumped a distance of 7 feet. This was a horizontal jump; no clear record exists for a vertical jump. Both directions of jumping, however, rely on the same anatomical features inherent in felines.

Despite the great agility of domestic cats, wild cats can still achieve much greater distances when jumping – be it vertically or horizontally. According to research by O’Malley (2019), pumas are the best high jumpers, reaching heights of up to 18 feet.

 

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