The world as experienced by cats differs greatly from our own. We must first understand the way cats perceive the world in order to walk on their paws. While cats have the same five senses that humans do — sight, sound, smell and taste — they process inputs quite differently.
Knowing that they share some of our senses with us can help us to live in harmony with our furry companions. Learn more about your cat’s senses on Happy Mew Years for Cats Day and perhaps feel a stronger connection.
Cats and humans see the world differently.
Cats need light, even though their precision pouncing may give the impression that they have built-in goggles for night vision. While a human has a limited ability to see in the dark, cats are able to make the most of it. Evolution has made it more probable that cats will hunt and be active at dawn and dusk.
The cornea is the transparent, round surface of the cat eye. The cornea concentrates light onto the retina which is located at the inner back of the cat’s eye. The cornea of a cat is large and shaped like a dome, which allows the cat to gather as many photons as possible. This is adapted for their life in low light. The cat’s pupils are vertical and long, and they narrow to a small slit when in daylight. They can expand up to 300 times larger at night (human pupils only grow 15 times larger).
It is thought that the back of the cat’s eye has a layer known as the tapetum lumidum. This layer reflects light unabsorbed back into the retinas. This adaptation helps the cat to see in dim lighting and produces the “eye shine” glow when the light shines in the darkness. They also have better peripheral vision than we do.
Some aspects of feline sight are less sharp. Cats’ retinas contain fewer cones, the photoreceptors which perceive color. This is why they are said to see colors less vividly and with fewer shades than humans. The cones also determine the sharpness of vision. This is why a cat’s vision is blurrier despite its superior low-light ability. We can see what cats can at 20 feet.
This doesn’t stop them. The reduced color vision of cats doesn’t slow them down.
The cat’s triangular ears look like tiny furry satellite dishes. The pinnae on their ears can rotate independently forward, backward and sideways in order to pinpoint the location of a sound. Pinnae can rotate 180 degrees, allowing cats to pinpoint the sound’s location to within a few inches. This is faster than blinking an eye.
Even a tenth of a tonal difference can be discerned by cats. But just because cats have ultrasonic ears (far superior than humans or even dogs), doesn’t mean they like Beyonce, Beethoven, and other popular music. A research team from U.S. Universities tested in 2015 tunes that included feline sounds such as purring and pulses similar to suckling. The results showed cats preferred cat songs (“Cozmo’s Air”) and “Rusty’s Ballad” to music composed by people.
The cat’s sense of smell is fully developed from the moment it leaves the womb. The kitten uses its nose to find the nearest nipple, where it can take its first sip .
Experts estimate that the cat’s sense is 14 times more sensitive than ours. The olfactory tissue of a domestic cat, which contains the receptors for detecting odors in the nose, is five to ten times bigger than that of a human. Cats have 200 million cells that can detect smells compared to our five million.
The Jacobson’s Organ is another tool available to our feline friends. The Jacobson’s Organ is located above the mouth. It contains receptor cells that connect to the part the brain responsible for sexual, feeding and social behavior. The Flehmen reaction is a cat’s way of partially opening their mouths when they smell something. This sends air molecules towards the Jacobson’s organ. Inhaled air gets trapped in the olfactory organ and/or epithelium, which gives kitties a better chance of detecting scent molecules.
While we may love the look of kittens with whiskers, cats actually depend on them.
A whisker, also known as a vibrissa in formal terms, is thicker and longer than the normal hair of a cat. The whiskers of cats are made from a follicle that is filled with nerves and vessels. They are as sensitive as human fingers. These vibrissae compensate for the cat’s poor close-up vision. They can detect air movement that may indicate the presence or absence of prey, and they help cats navigate obstacles.
You might be able to understand your cat friend a bit more now that you know how they move through the world.