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Understanding Your Cat's Senses

By: Karen Commings

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As a cat finds his way around his environment, the concept of extrasensory perception takes on a whole new meaning. Almost all of a cat's five senses have a heightened sensitivity when compared to those of humans.

Smell

Your cat's sense of smell is superior to your own and one of the most important ways in which he receives feedback about his environment. Sense of smell helps him communicate with others of his own kind and assess the potential risks and pleasures associated with every waking moment. . Cats have 200 million odor-sensitive cells in their noses compared to about 5 million for humans. Because of astonishing olfactory acuity, your cat can detect the presence of other cats even outside the home and can identify any strange animals you've contacted simply by smelling your clothing. Your cat will deposit its own odor by urine marking and deposition of skin secretions to mark its territory and important objects in its environments. He will also use his olfactory ability to smell, as opposed to taste his food to determine whether the food you've offered him is appealing.

Sight

Your cat can see in only one-fifth of the light intensity that you need to make things out at night, but even cats cannot see in total darkness. That eerie glow you see when your cat's eyes reflect light is due to a layer of cells, called the tapetum lucidum, that lies beneath the visually sensitive layer (retina) at the back of his eyes. These light-reflecting cells enable a cat to see form and movement in very low light intensity, at illumination levels that would leave humans – well, blind. For example, it has been calculated that a night that appears black as pitch to us may seem, to a cat, like a bright, moon-lit night. This particular feline aptitude is of biological importance because it helps cats (and, more relevantly, helped cat ancestors) to hunt for prey at night.

Although your cat's ability to distinguish separate objects (visual acuity) is only one-tenth that of yours, he can discern movement at a much faster rate than you can. This ability to see movement, even where there is very little, is what attracts cats to television screens. On TV, even slow-moving images appear jumpy to a cat because of the way signal is displayed.

Hearing

Your cat's ears function like mini-satellite dishes, rotating to pick up sounds and funneling them to the brain. Observe your cat listening to a conversation in your home or some commotion outside. His ears move back and forth as he listens and his ability to pinpoint the source of the sound is exceptional.

If you've ever wondered how your cat could find a mouse in your house, sound may be part of the explanation. The upper range of hearing in cats is about 60 to 65 kilohertz (kilocycles per second), which enables cats to hear their kittens' ultrasonic vocalizations and the ultrasonic calls of small rodents. Humans hear about 8.5 octaves whereas a cat hears about 10, which is why some high-pitched noises, such as certain types of music, may agitate your cat.

What appears as two separate sounds to you may seem like one sound to a cat. In spite of your cat's ability to hear a broader range of sounds than you, his hearing ability has some limitations. For example, he requires about five degrees of separation to distinguish between two different tones whereas you can differentiate sounds merely 0.5 degrees apart.

Touch

Your cat's sense of touch encompasses his entire body, just as yours does. One of the most important components of your cat's touch-sensing apparatus is his fine collection of special whiskers. These whiskers appear on his cheeks, lips, and above his eyebrows. Special sensory whiskers (vibrissae) act as fine-sensing, object detection devices, and they contribute to your cat's ability to navigate and hunt in low light. A cat with no whiskers is like a blind man without his cane.

Your cat will benefit from being touched. Stroking or petting your cat evokes certain physical and emotional responses. His heart rate will slow and his body will relax as he starts to purr like an engine and slowly slides into euphoric, tactilely-induced oblivion. When your cat rubs against your leg, he is depositing scents and marking you as part of his domain – the feline way of saying, "You're mine." When you're petting him the reverse is probably true.

Taste

In spite of their reputation for being finicky eaters, cats have less ability to differentiate between various tastes than humans do. While you have about 9,000 taste buds on your tongue, your cat has a mere 473. Your cat's taste buds are found in the form of mushroom-shaped papillae at the tip and sides of his tongue, and in cup-shaped papillae at the back of his tongue. Your cat's appreciation of food is more closely related to his ability to smell rather than to his sense of taste.

Your cat's taste will respond to flavor and to food's texture and temperature. Food that is below room temperature is a turnoff to most cats. This particular fastidiousness seems genetically programmed and may have provided some survival benefit for cats' ancient ancestors. Perhaps eating recently killed prey was more healthful than eating it when it was stone cold. That would make good biological sense.

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