A Cat’s Five Senses

Cat lying downIn the animal kingdom, big cats have developed several adaptations that allow them to be top predators in a variety of ecosystems. While modern house cats may not need to hunt to the same extent as wild cats, our pets have still kept several interesting abilities that enhance their senses.

Dr. Carly Patterson, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, shares some interesting facts about cats’ senses and unique abilities.

Cats are often seen playing and wandering around at night, leading many to believe cats can see in the dark. While this is not strictly true, Patterson said cats can see in near darkness much better than people and many other animals.

“Cats can dilate their pupils in low-light situations and they have a special reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum that allows them to reflect more light to the back of the eye,” she explained.

In addition, cats, like many other animals, have an extra fold on their ears, called Henry’s Pocket. According to Patterson, the exact function of this feature is not known, but many believe it helps to enhance high-frequency sounds. Sounds that may be inaudible to people, such as the squeak of a mouse, are easily heard by cats.

“Cats hear sounds of varying frequencies and they are especially adept at hearing high-frequency sounds,” Patterson said. “Sounds that humans may perceive as normal background noise could be stressful to the cat.”

For example, high-pitched noises that are barely audible to human ears, such as the buzz from an LCD computer screen, can be loud and annoying to cats. This problem can be greatly reduced by turning electronics off when not in use.

While cats have above average vision and hearing, their ability to taste is comparably weaker than the human sense of taste. Patterson explained that cats lack the sweet taste receptor, so even if they seem attracted to some sweet foods, they are likely detecting only the fat and texture.

On the other hand, cats are able to smell much better than people, but not as well as dogs. While cats have far fewer scent receptors than dogs, recent research has shown that cats may be better at discerning between different smells.

Finally, cats use their whiskers to enhance their senses of touch and balance. Patterson said whiskers are located in several places on a cat’s body, though the pattern changes with different cat breeds.

“Whiskers are strategically located on a cat’s face to transmit critical sensory information, such as the ability to fit through passageways, potential obstacles, and even a sense of overall balance,” she explained.

Although house cats tend to spend more time napping than hunting, their senses give them abilities that are shared with many of the world’s top predators. Next time you watch your cat play, you’ll know that their dilating pupils, rotating ears, and other characteristics are signs that they are using their keen senses.

Pet Talk is a service of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

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