Five Questions and Answers Concerning The Physical Attributes Of Cats

Five Questions and Answers Concerning The Physical Attributes Of Cats

Breed Facts

Cats are really quite amazing creatures. They can jump to great heights, go completely limp when being held if they want to, and look so elegant when they walk. So how do they do all these things? Here are some commonly asked questions about the physical attributes of cats, along with the answers....

My cat jumps from the floor right to the top of my bookshelf. How is that possible?

Cats are incredibly athletic. Many of them can jump to a height far greater than their own length, with apparently little effort. That ability to jump so high comes mainly from their powerful thigh muscles, which constrict tightly and then let go like a catapult, propelling them into the air. To get it in perspective, a human with the leg strength and power of a cat would be able to jump from the ground to the top of a house. This is a very useful ability for cats in the wild, since they are small predators, so it is advantageous for them to be able to get high up to look for prey animals. It also enables them to escape from larger animals which might see them as prey or harm them in some way. Domestic cats no longer need to do this of course. But it does mean that they can escape from dogs, the noise of the vacuum cleaner, or anything else which worries them, so it is still a useful skill.

The desire and ability to jump to great heights is stronger in some cats than others. Among pedigree cats, the slender, athletic cats of Oriental type, such as the Siamese and Abyssinian, look as though they are born to jump. Cats with larger, heavier bodies, such as the Persian and British Shorthair, are less likely to jump to really high places, unless they do so in stages, such as floor to couch, couch to table, table to high bookcase. And not all cats are as graceful as they think they are; I have known cats try to jump to high places and not make it

Why and how do Ragdoll cats go limp when you hold them?

This is one of those old wives tales which has been told so often that many people just assume it is true. Ragdoll cats are actually no different from other cats, and not all of them go limp when they are held. However, Ragdolls do tend to be very relaxed and laid back, and many of them will flop in their owner's arms when picked up. But there is no special reason for this, and they don't do anything different from any other very easy-going cat. They simply behave in the way that many cats will if they trust their owners and enjoy being picked up and petted. Of course, not all cats like being picked up in this way, and indeed, not all Ragdolls do. But this relaxed attitude does seem to be part of their personality, on the whole. But there is no mutation behind that famous Ragdoll flop, and not all Ragdolls are floppers.

Why do a cat's whiskers twitch?

A cat's whiskers are deep-set, hypersensitive modified hairs called vibrissae, and they help the cat find her way in the world. They do this by detecting small changes in air currents, and are an important sense organ for the cat. The spread of a cat's whiskers helps her gauge how much room she needs to get through a narrow opening in very low light, when she cannot actually see the space all that clearly. Of course, this is not foolproof, and may not work if a cat gains too much weight! A cat's whiskers also move according to her mood – when they are forward, she is in a friendly or curious mood, when they are pinned back, she may be annoyed. And if they move when she is asleep, she is probably dreaming. So there are all sorts of possible reasons for a cat's whiskers twitching, some physical, some more related to her feelings.

What is it about the way cats walk that always makes them look so smooth and elegant?

If you've ever noticed how dogs walk, you will have seen that they alternate sides when they step. In other words, the front right paw steps forward at the same time as the rear left paw. Then the front left and rear right paws step forward. Cats, on the other hand, step forward with both right paws, then both left paws. This is known as a 'pace', and only camels and giraffes have this same natural gait. It is this way of moving which makes camels and giraffes appear to move so elegantly, and cats too of course.

How many bones does a cat have?

The answer to this one depends to some extent on the type of cat we are talking about. A long-tailed Siamese will have more vertebrae, and therefore more bones overall, than a Manx cat with no tail or a Japanese Bobtail with just part of a tail. And a polydactyl cat – ie one with extra toes, will have more bones in its feet. However, the range is usually between 230 and 250, with the average cat having about 244 bones. And this is approximately 30 more bones than we have, and we are much bigger than cats of course. This fact explains much of a cat's well known flexibility, and explains why they can lick behind their shoulders and sleep curled up in a perfect circle.


We are so used to having our cats around, that we often don't remember that they are descended from African wild cats, and are successful predators which are the result of thousands of years of evolution. This evolutionary history accounts for many of their physical attributes, despite the fact that few cats today need to go out and hunt and take care of themselves. But if they needed to, most of them could!

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