High-Rise Syndrome

Updated: March 02, 2016
Published: August 15, 2011
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I’m writing this as I am flying back to Colorado after a brief trip to New York City. I haven’t visited NYC recently, and the skyscrapers and general verticalness of the city came as a shock after living in the wide open spaces of our western states for most of the last decade.

The skyscrapers also got me thinking about a feline disease (perhaps condition is a better word) that I haven’t diagnosed in awhile. It’s called high-rise syndrome… seriously.

High-rise syndrome describes the constellation of injuries that are seen when cats fall from a significant height — anything from one or two stories (though I’m not sure this qualifies as "high-rise") to 20 stories or more. Cats do have amazing balance, but they can still tumble off of fire escapes, balconies, or through open windows that are not securely screened. Young cats that become distracted by a bird, butterfly, another cat, or the like are at the highest risk.

Paradoxically, cats are often more severely injured when they fall from lower versus higher heights. Given enough time, cats can twist themselves around so they fly through the air feet first with their bodies spread out like a mini-parachute. This decreases the speed of their falls.

I found some statistics about injuries and survival rates in cats suffering from high-rise syndrome in an article published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Here is the abstract:

High-rise syndrome was diagnosed in 132 cats over a 5-month period. The mean age of the cats was 2.7 years. Ninety percent of the cats had some form of thoracic trauma. Of these, 68% had pulmonary contusions and 63% had pneumothorax. Abnormal respiratory patterns were evident clinically in 55%. Other common clinical findings included facial trauma (57%), limb fractures (39%), shock (24%), traumatic luxations (18%), hard palate fractures (17%), hypothermia (17%), and dental fractures (17%). Emergency (life-sustaining) treatment, primarily because of thoracic trauma and shock, was required in 37% of the cats. Nonemergency treatment was required in an additional 30%. The remaining 30% were observed, but did not require treatment. Ninety percent of the treated cats survived.

Whitney WO, Mehlhaff CJ. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1987 Dec 1;191(11):1399-403.

What this boils down to is that almost every cat will be hurt if he falls from a significant height (90 percent of cats had some sort of injury to the chest), but, and this really shocked me, 90 percent of cats that are seen by a veterinarian for the condition will survive, and 30 percent didn’t require any form of treatment at all.

I guess cats really do have nine lives.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Pic of the day: Cat on the roof by Meneer De Braker (Akbar2)

cat injuries from falling, high rise syndrome, cats falling from buildings