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Just for Kids: Your Cat’s Senses

Have you ever watched your cat or kitten play? All of a sudden she attacks a toy, or jumps on your ankles as you walk by, or stalks the family dog. Your cat may be playing but he is also acting like a hunter. This is because his ancestors were wild cats who hunted for their food.

Because your cat was once a hunter, his body and his senses are still pretty much the same as a wild cat’s. He would still make a good hunter because his sense of hearing, smell and touch are very sharp, and he can see in near darkness.


The first thing your cat does when he climbs onto your lap is smell – your lap, your hands, your clothes. Before he digs into his food or takes a treat, he sniffs it. And have you ever tried hiding medicine in his food? I’ll bet you found it lying all alone in the bowl after he finished eating.

Your cat’s sense of smell is one of the ways in which he interacts with his environment. His nose is small and neat, but it’s filled with bones and scent organs. Cats have 19 million cells for smelling in their noses – dogs have 200 million and humans have about 5 million. Your cat also has a tiny cigar-shaped organ in the roof of his mouth called the Jacobson’s organ. He uses it to sniff out things like a potential mate, a strange cat in his territory or an unusual odor.

Cats also have glands that secrete pheromones (pronounced fare-o-mones). These are smells that help to identify your cat. They are like fingerprints in humans. The glands are found on your cat’s cheeks, on his lower legs, and under his tail. He leaves his scent as he walks, when he rubs his cheeks against something or when he sprays. When another cat smells pheromones, he gets information about the cat, such as who the cat is and if he knows her. He will also know when she was there, which direction she headed, and even what kind of mood she was in.

By the way, when your kitty rubs her face against you, it means she likes you and wants to leave her scent on you.


Your cat sees very well – even better than you. Remember he evolved from hunters. In the wild, cats hunt early in the morning before it’s light and in the evening after the sun has gone down. As a result, your cat can see in very dim lights; his eyes can open about three times as wide as the human pupil and let in as much light as possible when he needs to. When he doesn’t need the light, he can shut his pupil size down to a fine vertical slit so that only a small amount of light enters the eye.

Did you ever see your cat’s eyes glow? There is a reflective layer at the back of his eye. His eyes are very sensitive to movement, too. He can scan your backyard with a single sweep of his eyes and detect the tiniest of movements from the tiniest insect.


Your cat is sound asleep in the back room of the house when you open a can of cat food. Suddenly your kitty is there, stretching and looking hungry.

A cat’s sense of hearing is amazing. Again, this is because his ancestors were hunters. Cats can hear sounds we cannot. A cat can distinguish between sounds only three inches apart way across your yard. They can also hear sounds far away – four or five times farther away than humans.

Cats can also detect the tiniest variances in sound, which helps them identify the type and size of the prey emitting the noise.

Watch your cat as he listens to something. His ears move back and forth and rotate like mini-satellite dishes. The ear contains more than 12 muscles, which allows it to turn up to 180 degrees to locate and identify even the faintest of squeaks, peeps or rustling noises.


Some people say that if a cat’s whiskers touch a mouse in the dark, the cat will act like a mousetrap. The whiskers are very sensitive. The special hairs are set deep within the skin are very sensitive to air movement around it. His whiskers are the same width as his body so he can tell if he can fit through a small space.

When you stroke your cat, he behaves as he did when his mother groomed him. It was her touch that showed him affection, and your cat substitutes you for his mother when he licks or kneads you. You may have noticed as you pet your cat he starts drooling and treading with his paws. This is what he did as a kitten when he wanted his mother to give him milk. These are happy memories from kitten-hood.


You buy a new cat food. You open the can (your cat comes running) and place it in his dish. He takes a quick whiff, turns and walks away – without even a taste.

Some people think cats are finicky eaters. But cats don’t taste nearly as well as we do. We have 9,000 taste buds, while cats have only 473. Instead, your cat smells his food and decides whether or not he likes it.

Making Sense

Cats can hear sounds we can’t hear, see things we can’t see and smell and feel the world around us in ways that we could never grasp. Even though your kitty looks like he is playing, he is really practicing to be a hunter.