Humans always brag about being the most intelligent species on the planet and posture as though this makes us somehow superior to our animal friends. Any species that can build a hydrogen collider that might destroy the planet has got to be pretty smart right? Well smart though we may be, it might well be the animals who have the right to scoff and when it comes to our senses we are downright inferior to the vast majority of our fellow mammals. Our eyesight is quite good to be fair, but in terms of hearing and smell most of our pets can run rings around us.
There’s one animal though that we have always known to be superior to us, and that has been pulling the strings behind most historical moments and most human achievements for centuries now – the cat. Dealing with us humans only when necessary for food, the cat has an incredible agility and heightened senses that grant it dominion over humankind. What would it be like to be a cat? And just how highly tuned are your cat’s senses? When it sits at the window and stares intently out into the night… what does it see? And when it perches on your wardrobe while you sleep… what is it planning?
A cat’s senses are essential to its health and well being and have given them the evolutionary edge. Here we will look at what makes a cat such an efficient piece of machinery and how its different senses all interact.
You might have noticed first and foremost the incredible agility and balance that your cat displays – when it walks along your fence or even runs along it, only to jump onto tiny landing areas. And if it falls? Well of course cats always land on their feet. So cat’s clearly have pretty special balance and special awareness and this is due to the cat’s highly developed hind-brain. Here the cerebellum controls balance and gets its information from the end of the spinal cord forming the medulla. Like humans the inner ear of the cat controls balance and this area too is more highly developed. The balance of the cat though also comes from the fact that the cat is so small and light which enables it to more quickly adapt to its position when falling. The bones of the cat are also designed to be very supple and to bend and the cat knows how to relax its body in order to better absorb the shock impact. Interestingly a fall from a low height is more likely to injure a cat than a fall from a great height – the simple reason being that the further they fall the more likely they are to have time to twist in the air.
Compared to humans cats have fantastic night vision and this means that when they stare at you in the dark they can see you perfectly well. Cats have wider eyes than humans and this allows them to take in more light which can help them to jump and spring more accurately. Their eyes are designed to collect the most amount of light possible and not all of this can be absorbed – and that’s why some shades of light are reflected back – the inspiration for the ‘cats’ eyes’ you see on the motorway.
The position of their eyes on the front of their head also gives them good stereoscopic vision for depth perception. At the same time a proportionately higher number of rods in the cats’ eyes means that the cat is better at picking up low levels of light and seeing in the dark, but it also means that they are not as capable of seeing color. While they are not color blind they will see more subtle shades of color than we do. This ability to see in the dark helps them to hunt nocturnal prey and to continue to prowl with the same level of agility while humans are sleeping – which is why it’s not safe to sleep with your toes hanging out of the duvet.
As you can tell sight is very important for cats and as such they actually have three eyelids – an upper and a lower eyelid as well as a third membrane for clearing dust and keeping the eyeballs moist and lubricated.
A cat’s use of touch is very similar to ours and they can use their noses and paws in order to examine the substance of a material. Their noses are also handy as a form of thermometer and can be useful for picking up heat before they come into contact with something – this is why you don’t need to worry when you dish them up hot milk.
Cats also have another trick up their sleeve when it comes to touch and that’s to use their whiskers. These are positioned on the nose protruding past the sides of the head and this enables the cat to get a feel for how wide an opening is. If it tries to run through and feels its whiskers brush against the sides then it will know instantly how wide it is and whether or not they can get through (and if the whiskers don’t touch anything then it is of course wide enough). Thus your cat can rush through narrow spots and never worry about getting stuck or running into anything. It also means your cat’s whiskers are very sensitive though – so be careful with them!
A cat’s smell is not twice as strong as a human’s. It’s not even ten times as strong. It is in fact fourteen times as strong. This is due to the fact that the cat’s nasal organ is much larger than a human’s meaning that it has many more cells than that of human. In fact a cat has an impressive 2 million cells that can pick up scent ensuring it can smell most things. Interestingly a cat can also smell somewhat through its nose using an area on the roof of the mouth that allows it to suck odors into the mouth. This area is called ‘Jacobson’s organ’ and this allows the cat to smell things in more detail. A cat will do this by pulling a certain facial expression where it gulps in and then wrinkles its face. This is called the ‘Flehmen’ reaction. A cat’s sense of smell is important as it plays a role in its ability to find food, as well as its ability to find mates by smelling hormones and pheromones. This might also be responsible for the impressive displays of empathy that both dogs and cats are known for – they may be able to smell things like illness and even depression. This is possibly why cats are often accused of having a sixth sense – along with their other impressive senses that allow them to detect the presence of pests and atmospheric changes that you won’t necessarily be aware of. Some owners claim that their cats will be extra affectionate when they are feeling down, and that they will avoid them when they’re in a bad mood.
Cats have already beaten humans in terms of their sight and smelling, and hearing is no different. A cat can hear noises that to us would be completely inaudible and this includes ultrasonic noise which precedes movement. Thus a cat can ‘hear’ movement and react before anything happens – so good luck catching your cat ready for the vet.
Like human’s a cat’s ear is made of three sections – the inner ear, the outer ear and the middle ear. The outer ear flap acts as a funnel to bring in sound waves to the ear drum which vibrates in accordance with those sound waves. In the middle ear three small bones transmit this sound to the eardrum. It is the middle ear in a cat that is more developed than in a human, and that’s what gives them the ability to hear ultrasonic sounds. Finally the cochlea in the inner ear is a spiral cavity that contains the organ of corti which converts sound vibrations into nerve impulses. If you were able to bypass the middle ear of humans and feed ultrasonic sound directly to the corti then you would be able to achieve the sound ultrasonic hearing as cats.