A High-Rise Tragedy

Dogs and cats are frequent victims of the city’s tall residential buildings.

Cats (and dogs) don’t always land on their feet.

Dozens of furry companions fall or jump out of high-rise buildings in the city every year, and as the number of tall housing developments increases, so does the potential for more accidents.

Some pets survive a fall, but not all do. And in most cases, installing a cheap window screen could save their lives.

It’s called “high-rise syndrome,” when a pet, usually a cat, jumps out of a window in pursuit of something — another animal, an enticing smell, an interesting sound.
Dr. Thomas Mason, vice president of veterinary services at the SFSPCA’s Pacific Heights Campus, says he sees fewer than half a dozen cases involving dogs each year, but when a dog is brought in, it usually doesn’t survive.

“Cats, amazingly, sometimes have very minor injuries from high up,” Mason says. “They right themselves, and the impact is distributed. They can still injure themselves, but they go home. Dogs don’t do that. They land on their head or their side. They’re denser. With cats, if they fall from less distance they have more injuries, because they don’t have time to right themselves.”

San Francisco’s Animal Care and Control sees a handful of cases each year, including both cats and dogs, according to records going back to 2014. By early September of this year, Animal Control had seen two cases: one cat and one dog.

In 2015, an American Eskimo dog fell 17 floors, according to records. Later that same year, a cat fell 15 floors.

Just last month, a 12-year-old female German shepherd jumped from an eighth-floor unit in Mission Bay. Maintenance workers nearby responded quickly with orange cones to block off the area and draped a blue tarp over the body until Animal Control arrived.

Though there were several people standing nearby, nobody else was injured. 

The intake form said, “German Shepherd,” “spayed female,” and “DOA.”

Although high-rise syndrome is relatively infrequent, the VCA, a North American pet hospital chain, does see one or two cases every week in San Francisco.

Tom McEntegart, a veterinarian with the VCA, says it’s hard to know exactly why an animal jumps.

“Many high-rise syndrome cases occur when the owner is not home,” McEntegart told SF Weekly via email. “Anecdotally, most dogs are chasing other animals or objects out of windows (or off roof tops). Cats are sometimes startled while resting on the sill or misjudge their jump up to the window.”

And holidays known for fireworks aren’t the only time of year to be vigilant about pet safety.

“Nationally, this is reportedly a warm weather phenomenon, but here in San Francisco we don’t recognize seasonal variation,” McEntegart says.

Records from Animal Control also show that jumping incidents happen year-round, except from December through February — generally colder months. And over Labor Day weekend, the Bay Area had a record-breaking heat wave, with temperatures in the city reaching 106 degrees.

Another annual event that can spook pets takes place this weekend: Fleet Week air shows. Military jets are scheduled to fly over the city for three days starting on Friday. So, if you are a pet owner in a high-rise building, now might be a good a time to consider installing screens on all windows to keep your furry friends safe.

At the very least, keep all windows closed this weekend.

“An open window is a risk, just as with a child,” Mason says. “If you’re above ground level, it’s a fact that people need to think about. In S.F. we don’t have air conditioning, so people open their windows and that’s when a pet can fall out.”

And you wouldn’t let a young child play near an open, unscreened window several stories up. Would you?

Related Stories