A cat’s senses are ready and waiting

Here comes Toji! - Photo by fofurasfelinas (link at base of page)

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Here comes Toji! - Photo by fofurasfelinas (link at base of page)

This is a really nice picture by a well-known Flickr photographer, Giane Portal, Flickr name: forfurasfelinas, of a sanctuary or rescue cat (she is heavily involved in cat rescue) named Toji. As we can see, he is a brown mackerel tabby cat and it shows that his cat's senses are ready and waiting.

The whiskers are long and almost in the forward position. When cat's whiskers are being used to feel prey, they are in the forward position almost as if they are outstretched to touch prey and feel it. I see this when I play with my cat. Her ears point forward and her whiskers also point forward. They move fast so it is not spotted sometimes. And they go back to the "standby" position as quickly.

A cat's whiskers are incredible. They are very sensitive; so sensitive that they can sense or "feel" small changes in air currents. As air passes around objects air currents are formed. A cat, able to sense this, can judge where objects are in the dark.

Domestic cats usually kill small rodents by a killer bite to the spine severing the spinal column at the nape of the neck. Large wildcats do the same for smaller prey. The cat's canine teeth are used to severe the spine at the exact spot where one vertebra meets another. The cat's whiskers are also used to feel for this exact spot particularly at dusk and night.

And we can just see Toji's canine teeth, nice and symmetrical, protruding slightly from his mouth - ready for action. I think Giane was using a tease as this cat is has all his senses ready for action.

The heightened sensitivity of cat's whiskers comes from a mass of nerves at the base of each whisker. We can sense that Toji's whiskers are ready to go to work in this photo. That may be because Giane is using a cat tease that equates to prey for Yoji.

Then we have his ears; pointed forward and focused. Cat's ears are amazing too as they can swivel around to position the ear flaps (pinnae) more accurately. Cats frequently look away with their eyes but listen in a different direction at the same time often behind them. And they work independently too. Toji's eyes are alert and focused. The irises of each eye have closed the pupil to a slit so there must have been some light on him. Perhaps Giane has a portable light too. The fact that the pupil is a slit rather than a circle as for humans is an added bonus for the cat.

When the eyelids close, they shutter down over the slit blocking more light from the retina in a nicely progressive manner - very effective for the cat that has very sensitive eyes due to a reflective layer behind the retina that reflects light back onto the retina magnifying it making hunting at dusk and dawn (crepuscular activity) more effective.

Toji has a kind of modified tabby "M" mark on his forehead. These vary quite a lot and this is an interesting one. I wonder if the variations signify anything about the cat? One day we might discover that it does.

See the original picture on Flickr

Associated Pages:

Cats Whiskers

Cats Eyes

Tabby Cats

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Updating this page September 2, 2023

This page was first written in around 2010 so I am going through some old pages on my website to update them. I would like to add some information about the senses of the domestic cat. I'm going to use Dr. Bruce Fogle's The Encyclopaedia of the Cat to help me.

Cat senses for survival
Cat senses for survival. Photo of grey Maine Coon copyright Helmi Flick

A cat needs it senses the moment it is born in order to survive. Even at birth, a newborn kitten's heat and smell receptors in the nose help it find its mother and to pick out a nipple which it then sticks to. This is a regime which kittens in a litter accept. Each one has their own nipple to feed on and it helps to keep the peace.

Kittens drinking their mother's colostrum
Kittens drinking their mother's colostrum. Photo: Pixabay.

And over the next three months of development from birth all the kitten's senses develop to maturity. The kitten picks up information about the environment through their sensory organs. They convert this information into chemical and electrical signals which are then transmitted through the nervous system to the brain.

Domestic cats have a similar nervous system to ours and their senses are also similar to ours but they have a great refinement in respect of certain senses.

Electromagnetic homing sense

In addition to the classic five senses cats have a refined balance, a sex-scenting sense in the vomeronasal organ, and possibly even, an electromagnetic homing sense. This last mysterious sense has been hinted at by Dr. Desmond Morris in his various books on the cat.

A lot of people scratch their heads to figure out how a domestic cat can find their way home sometimes over hundreds or even more than a thousand miles. In one possibility is that they are able to sense the Earth's magnetic field and combine that sense with markers in their journey which leads them to their home. This homing skill happen sometimes when they are inadvertently taken away from their home or even removed from their home when their owner moves. Sometimes under the circumstances they escape their home and go back to their original home range which may be many miles away.

Dr. Bruce Fogle says that the cat might be the most successful of all the land-based predators. Because the domestic cat is quite a small predator it can be preyed upon by other predators. Therefore, it senses are both used to avoid danger and survive and to hunt more effectively.

Whiskers

It's whiskers are touch sensitive and are found all over the cat's body and not just on their muzzle. You will see some whisker hairs on the side of their face if you look carefully. The cat' as paw pads have touch receptors as well as the whiskers.

Kittens grow whiskers while in the womb. Although newborn kittens are blind and almost deaf, they have fully functioning whiskers.

Cat whiskers
Cat whiskers. Photo: in public domain.

Whiskers are able to feel air currents, they are that sensitive. Therefore, they can aid a domestic cat in avoiding obstacles even in pitch black conditions.

And when a cat has captured a prey animal the whiskers can feel like fingers over the prey's body in order to help them to detect where the vertebra is and sever the spine by inserting canine teeth into it.

The mandibular and mytacial whiskers (vibrissae) are positioned on the chin and upper lip. These are the longest and most abundant. They are angled forwards in greeting or backwards when fighting and feeding. The top row moves independently of the bottom row.

Superciliary facial whiskers above the eyes and genal whiskers on the cheeks warn of dangers to the eyes as the cat is inquisitive and explores their surroundings. It may surprise you to know that there is a sixth set of whiskers which extend from the back of each foreleg.

Hearing and balance

The domestic cat is equipped with excellent hearing and balance. The hearing is adapted to hunt small rodents. They can detect the faintest high-pitched squeaks. Or they can pick up the sound of rustling and even though they can't see the animal they will be able to attack it.

Feline cutaneous marginal pouch (Henry's Pocket) enhances high frequency sound detection
Feline cutaneous marginal pouch (Henry's Pocket)

RELATED: A theory for the existence of the feline Henry’s pocket

The inner ear helps the cat to balance. The cat is a natural climber and likes to move vertically. It has a sensitive sense of balance. It is the inner ear's vestibular apparatus which helps. When the cat changes direction or changes in terms of its speed of movement it is picked up instantly by the vestibular apparatus. This allows the cat to compensate by changing its orientation.

Vision

Most experts think that cats are colourblind but tests have shown that the cat's colour sensitive cells in their retinas are sensitive to blue and green but not too red. Trials indicate that cats do not recognise red. Their eyes are more sensitive to movement than ours. They have more motion-detecting cells in their retina than ours.

Position of the tapetum lucidum
Position of the tapetum lucidum. Image in the public domain.

The world of the cat is seen in relative soft focus compared to ours because the lens is large to gather as much light as possible which prevents the eye, according to Dr. Bruce Fogle, to resolve details sharply.

As you know, the domestic cat's eye has a reflective layer behind the retina called the tapetum lucidum. This bounces light back into the retina to give the light receiving cells, rods and cones in the retina a chance to extract more information.

The chemical senses

The chemical senses refer to the senses of smell and taste. Cats have a very good sense of smell which is better than ours but less refined to that of the dog. When cats feed, they always smell the food to check its palatability and potability. That's their first check. Their sense of smell is superior to their sense of taste in this regard.

To return to the newborn kitten; their sense of smell is good enough to smell the differences between his mother's individual nipples. The nose is used to sense prey or food and to detect potential danger. Their sense of smell can identify friend from foe and understand the chemical messages left in sprayed urine or deposited faeces when marking their home range.

Vomeronasal organ in cats
Vomeronasal organ in cats. Image in public domain.

Even when a cat knows their owner really well because they lived with them for a long time, they will sniff their owner's leg or hand just for reassurance. Domestic cats like to sleep on the clothes of their owner because it smells right for them and for reassurance.

The vomeronasal organ or Jacobson's organ in the hard palate in the roof of the mouth allows it to detect smells with great accuracy. The cat opens his mouth slightly as if grimacing in order to inhale the smell particles into the organ. The tongue assist in this process and the odours are lapped into the organ and sent to the hypothalamus area of the brain to read the odours.

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