Most of us are aware that cats have keen night vision and are adept at hunting in low light, but are you aware of the full range of ways in which the senses of the cat differ from our own, and what this means for how they navigate the world? Not only are the senses of cats very different to our own, but they are also significantly different to that of dogs. Gaining a thorough understanding of how cats perceive the world around them, and in what ways their senses differ from both people and canines can help us to interpret cat behaviour more accurately, and understand the advantages and limitations of feline perception.
Read on to learn all about the senses of the cat!
Cats have keen eyesight in the dark and in low light, thanks to the large number of light-reflecting cones that are present within their eyes. This helps them to maximise the amount of available light that reaches the retina, and helps them to see more clearly in the dark and in low light. If you have ever photographed your cat in low light using a camera flash, you may have found that your cat’s eyes appear to be reflective or glowing in the subsequent pictures; this is due to the cones in your cat’s eyes reflecting back the light of the flash!
While the night vision of cats is significantly better than that of people, in daylight and in very bright light, cats’ vision is less keen, and people are one step ahead. Cats are generally more active and more prone to hunting at night, as this is when their vision is at its best.
Cats have a wider spectrum of colour vision than dogs, but this is still rather less developed than that of people. Cats can view colours in the green, yellow, blue and red range, but may have problems differentiating between colours that are close together in the spectrum.
The field of vision of the cat is not as wide as that of dogs, meaning that they are not able to view things in the periphery of their vision as keenly as dogs. Cats’ field of vision is slightly larger than that of people, being around 200 degrees as opposed to our own 180 degree vision.
This allows them to focus more keenly than dogs can, and have better detail differentiation than that of dogs, but means that they will be less visually aware of people and animals approaching them from the rear.
While it is usually dogs that are known for their keen hearing and ability to hear high-pitched sounds outside of the range of human hearing, cats are not left behind in the listening stakes! Cats can actually detect high frequency sounds with even greater acuity than dogs, and are able to hear sounds as much as 1.6 octaves higher than people can detect, and one octave higher than dogs can.
The cat’s ability to hear low-frequency sounds is roughly the same as that of people.
While dogs have a much greater range of movement of their ears than cats and can position their ears accordingly to home in on sounds, the inner ear flaps of the cat are directable, and can be moved within almost a full circle to help cats to concentrate their hearing. Cats are particularly good at precision location using their hearing, and strongly rely on their hearing to help them to detect the smallest sounds that their potential prey makes. Once a cat has singled out a sound in their vicinity, they can concentrate and home in it with an accuracy of just an inch or two, making their pounces incredibly precise!
The cat’s sense of smell is much better than that of people, being around fourteen times more efficient than our own. However, dogs clearly lead the field in the scenting stakes, with a sense of smell that is still thousands of times greater than that of the cat, depending on the dog breed.
As well as using their noses to smell, cats have an additional scent organ in their palate, which is called Jacobson’s Organ. Cats will sometimes use this organ to help them to build up a full scent picture of what is around them by curling their lips or opening their mouths, and this scent organ within the mouth also helps to enhance the cat’s sense of taste, which is otherwise rather poor.
Cats have a much smaller amount of taste buds than either dogs or people, with less than 500 taste buds compared to around 1,700 for dogs and 9,000 for us.
Cats can differentiate between four taste sensations: Sour, bitter, salty and sweet. The taste buds that are able to detect sweet tastes are not particularly well developed in the cat, as two sensory receptors are utilised in detecting sweetness and cats have one of these missing! It used to be thought that cats were unable to detect sweet tastes at all, but now it is known that while they can detect sweetness, this ability is very muted and cats are unlikely to be attracted to sweet treats.
Because cats have a narrow range of taste buds and not a significant amount of them, they can be rather picky eaters, as many things that might taste delicious to people or dogs simply do not taste of much at all to the cat. Texture is important in the appeal of food to cats, as is smell, and cats glean a large part of their enjoyment of food from its texture and smell as well as its taste.
The cat is able to feel touch and sensation in three ways: pressure, temperature and pain.
Cats are very sensitive to changes in temperature, and can detect variations as small as .5 Celsius in the air and ground around them.
The most sensitive parts of the cat are their faces around their muzzle, and their forelegs and paws. Cats rely heavily upon their whiskers to help with their physical navigation of the world, and not only can their whiskers pick up on obstacles and physical sensation, but can detect minute changes in air pressure and atmosphere too.
The pads of the muzzle where the whiskers enter the skin are nerve-rich and very sensitive, and provide clear and accurate feedback to the cat about what is going on around them.
Cats of course enjoy the pressure and sensation of being stroked and petted, although every cat is different and where and how any cat enjoys being touched will vary from case to case!