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Animal Behavior

The Super Senses of Cats

Cats retain the specialized predatory senses of their wild ancestors.

Key points

  • Specialized sensory capabilities favor a cat's success, and survival, as an ace predator.
  • Cats hear at higher frequencies than humans. At this range, they can detect the ultrasonic squeaks of small rodents.
  • Consistent with hunting tactics, cats are good at falling, which is likely the basis of a cat having nine lives.

Domestic cats are highly effective predators. Like wild cats, they retain keen senses of sight, hearing, and smell. Several other specialized sensory capabilities favor their success, and survival, as ace predators.

Night Vision and Supersonic Hearing

It is often useful to frame the sensory abilities of other species in terms of the abilities they possess and humans lack. Cats have much better night vision than we do. Their tapetum lucidum reflects light so that the visual signal is enhanced. The cat's pupil is slit-shaped during the day. At night, the pupil opens out to cover most of the eye. This means that a cat's nighttime vision is greatly enhanced.

Even on very dark nights, cats are good at finding their way around obstacles and can squeeze through tight spaces. This skill is due to their highly sensitive whiskers, or vibrissae. The whiskers extend to the width of the cat's body and allow them to gauge whether the body can squeeze through a narrow gap.

The cat's visual capabilities are adaptations to hunting under low light conditions. Other senses help them to find prey. Cats hear at higher frequencies than humans. At this range, they detect the ultrasonic squeaks of small rodents who are typical prey animals.

Cats also have an unusually good sense of smell that helps them to identify and localize their prey.

Given all of these refined sensory adaptations, it is no surprise that domestic cats can be effective predators. Many cat owners do not realize that their pets are one of the key threats to wild bird populations.

In addition to finding food, cat senses are fine-tuned for survival. In particular, they are good at surviving falls.

Sensing Gravitation

Cats like to climb. They look for elevated perches where they can keep watch on what is going on around them. Many like to sit on the backs of couches next to a window where they can monitor potential prey. Given that many remain inside a home, this hobby is purely theoretical. Yet, it harks back to the hunting strategies of wild cats that often attack by pouncing on prey from a height.

Consistent with this hunting tactic, cats are very good at falling well. This is likely the basis of the claim that a cat has nine lives. They have an excellent righting reflex so that they always know which direction is up and invariably land on their feet when falling. This ability relies on the vestibular system of the inner ear.

It is not clear whether cats can detect the earth's magnetic field for use in navigation, as dogs do. Even so, their homing ability is legendary. Cats have been known to walk hundreds of miles to reach their homes. We do not know how they do this but they likely rely on their excellent vision and sense of smell.

Not all cats are good at homing and many get lost very easily, as reflected in the proliferation of “lost cat” notices. If cats are kept indoors they may not develop a good mental map of their surroundings outside the house.

Conversely, free-range cats develop a good understanding of their surroundings. Some follow a similar route each night as they search for prey, just as a person going to work sticks to a familiar route.

Unusual Capabilities

That cats fall well is a testament to their vestibular sensitivity but it also reflects exceptionally good control over all the muscles in the body. Such excellent motor control is part of their heritage as effective predators. It implies a very good sense of where their body parts are in relation to each other; that is the basis for coordinated movement in three dimensions. These abilities are one reason that cat videos can be so entertaining and that some cats enjoy performing for their owners

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