The cat: the most successful predator on land? The cat’s senses are for hunting and avoiding danger.
The domestic cat has excellent hearing adapted to hunting mice and small rodents. Cats have an uncanny ability to detect the faintest mouse squeak or rustle of movement. The inner ear helps to control balance through the vestibular apparatus. The cat’s sense of balance is very refined, which is essential, as they are wonderfully agile climbers. Cats participate in a lot of vertical movement and are natural born climbers.
Whiskers are touch-sensitive. There are touch-sensitive hairs all over the body but we know where most of them are. KIttens are born with whiskers – aka vibrissae – in full working condition! Whiskers help the cat during crepuscular and nighttime hunting by feeling for air currents and also the position of the prey, once caught, which assists the cat in placing his teeth in the correct position to kill the prey.
Most of the whiskers are on the upper lip and these are the longest. They can be positioned facing forwards or backwards. You’ll see a cat move his whiskers forwards in unison when a cat tease is placed in front of him. The whiskers are automatically placed in readiness to feel prey. In the backwards position they are protected. There are also whiskers on other parts of the face; above the eyes, for instance, and on the back of the forelegs.
There is an ongoing debate about whether the domestic cat is color blind. The modern assessment is that they have poor vision in respect of the color red but are not entirely blind to that color. The cat’s eyesight is honed to deal highly effectively with hunting under low light conditions. The cat’s eyes are more sensitive to motion than ours but do not focus quite so sharply because the lens is much larger than ours. The most outstanding evolutionary development of the cat’s eyes is the mirror – tapetum lucidum – that is behind the retina which reflects light back into the eye to amplify its reception.
The title refers to smell and taste. The cat’s sense of smell is considerably superior to ours but not as sensitive as the dog’s. Newborn kittens can detect and select individual nipples of their mother through smell. All cat owners can recognise the importance of smell to a cat as they use their noses almost as a form of eyesight. Perhaps the nose supports the eyes. Reading scents in urine and on objects and indeed depositing their scent on objects to make them more friendly are all part of routine life for the domestic cat.
In a similar way that the tapetum lucidum boosts the effectiveness of a cat’s eyesight, the vomeronal organ in the roof of the cat’s mouth is able to detect smells that the nose does not. The mouth is slightly open when this organ is being employed. Cats can detect tastes that are sour, bitter and salty but not sweet tasting foods.
There are some fascinating stories of cats making their way home over long distances after they have moved with their human family. Normally this homing ability is restricted to about 10 kilometers. It appears that cats are sensitive to electromagnetic fields and can orientate themselves. The regular compass that we are all familiar with – the magnetic compass – works on the same principle.
It could be argued that breeding purebred cats can diminish a cat’s sensory skills because selective breeding is about appearance. Cats bred for an indoor life such as the contemporary Persian are liable to lose some sensory skills. Also the breeding of anatomical features such as the flat-face must diminish the cat’s sense of smell as it reduces the size of the nose and the number of receptors. Breeding blue-eyed cats that are deaf is not what nature would have wanted.