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Cats mainly have the same senses as us. However, in some cases they work very differently, and there are definite reasons for this. Here are the answers to some commonly asked questions concerning cats' senses.
Cats have evolved to be nocturnal hunters, and they can see very well in dim light, far better than we can. This means that they need to protect their eyes from bright sunlight more than we do. Having eyes that reduce the pupil to a slit rather than a tiny circle, as our eyes do, gives the cat greater and more accurate control in different types of lighting. This ability is particularly important in bright sunlight. By using these vertical slits, and also closing her eyes – ie using horizontal eyelids – a cat can greatly reduce the amount of light entering her eyes. This works a bit like a shutter on a camera, and enables the cat to make highly delicate adjustments to accommodate different lighting. This protects the cat's eyes in much the same way as sunglasses. It's a perfect set-up for a night time hunter who also loves to bask in the sun.
Cats are definitely the winner of this contest. They can hear nearly three times the number of frequencies that humans can. Human hearing stops at 20 kilohertz, dogs at 45 kilohertz, but cats can hear all the way up to 80 kilohertz. And because cats can rotate their ears and focus each ear independently, they can also hear well from all directions. A cat's hearing is so sensitive that some of them will leave the room when a TV or radio is on too loudly for their comfort. And the loud noise is probably the reason why so many cats disappear as soon as you turn on the vacuum cleaner.
Kittens are born deaf as well as blind. They don't begin hearing until about two weeks of age, but once they can hear, they can pick up things we can only imagine, like bats in flight or a mouse up to 30 feet away. As with their eyes, cats' ears have developed this way to enable them to hunt more effectively.
This means that your cat hears you perfectly well when you call her. If she ignores you, it's because she is choosing to, or because she is distracted by something else, much as we sometimes don't hear someone speaking to us if we're watching a favourite TV programme.
No-one can completely explain the mechanics of a cat's purr; it remains a scientific mystery, which is unique to felines. But it is probably caused by the passing of air over structures in the cat's voice box. Generally cats purr when they are happy. But they will also purr when they're injured, while giving birth, and even when they're dying. Purring seems to be something a cat does when he's either with a friend or needs a friend, is happy or in pain. It seems to be a sound that both conveys and creates comfort.
A purring cat can lower a person's blood pressure, and relaxes both the cat and the person petting her. There is even some evidence that purring can speed up the healing process in cats. All small cats purr, including servals and ocelots. But some of the big cats, such as lions and tigers, are not able to make this sound.
All healthy cats find moving objects irresistible. They may be playing, but it is really about keeping their hunting instincts sharp, even for those cats who never have to hunt. So some cats love to chase that little red dot from a laser pointer, and never tire of trying to catch it. But some cats quickly get fed up with it, once they realise that there is actually nothing there which they can grab and bite. One of my Maine Coons worked out very quickly that the red dot wasn't real, and she completely lost interest after that. And my kitten is more interested in trying to work out where the red light is coming from than in actually chasing it; I think he is some kind of scientist cat! But for many cats, chasing the light from a laser pointer provides hours and hours of fun, and they don't seem to care whether or not they can catch it.
Nobody can actually read the feline mind, or anyone else's mind for that matter. But you can still tell a lot from looking at your cat's tail. When you are petting a cat who enjoys the attention, its tail will move languidly. But if that cat is getting to the limit of his tolerance for attention, the tail tip will flip rapidly, showing that the cat is annoyed. If the cat is really annoyed, his tail will swish rapidly. This is a cat which needs to be left alone!
If a cat is tracking something interesting, his tail will be held low, twitching erratically. If that cat becomes afraid or angry, his tail will be stuck out and puffed up, the so-called 'Halloween tail'. Again, this cat is best given a wide berth.
A cat can also express friendliness and good-natured curiosity with his tail. A happy, relaxed cat will have his tail upright.
It should be clear by now that a cat's senses, while very similar to ours, work in some different ways. These are often related to the cat's evolutionary development, and particularly to his life as a wild hunter. And after all, that is what we would expect. Cats may be domesticated pets, but they are not so far removed from their wild cousins in the jungles and deserts, and their senses are clear indicators of that.
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