Pets: Making sense of your cat’s super senses

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By Sarah Liu

As a longtime volunteer and lifetime cat enthusiast, I’m often asked which of a cat’s five senses it relies on most. It’s a topic I love to discuss and debate, but there’s just no clear answer. The truth is: Your cat is a secret superhero, specially equipped with an exquisite package of dynamic super senses, masterfully synchronized to rule its domain.

Sound

Cats hear far better than humans and are capable of detecting a broader range of sound than dogs. Acting as satellites, the cat’s ears are set high and forward on the head, with large surface areas called pinna to trap and funnel high- and low-pitched frequencies.

Cats have a great deal of muscle control over their ears, and are capable of pivoting them to increase sensitivity by 15 to 20 percent. Like many other animals, the cat’s ear contains an extra fold believed to enhance high frequency sounds, such as the squeaks made by rodents.

As in humans, the inner ear plays a critical role in balance and spatial orientation. Cats with inner ear infections will often exhibit signs of head tilt or leaning toward the affected side.

In general, your cat’s ears are self-cleaning. It’s normal to see a small amount of wax, but larger amounts can indicate problems such as allergies or ear mites. Check with your vet if you have concerns, and avoid home cleaning, as this can easily damage the delicate tissues and organs inside the ear.

Sight

As predators, cats have very good depth perception and vision that focuses mainly on movement. Cats are not color blind, but studies show they cannot discern the full spectrum of color seen by humans in daylight.

Cats do have a definite advantage in night vision. Contrary to myth, they cannot see in total darkness, but they are more sensitive in low light than humans or dogs. Additionally, cats do not need to lubricate their eyes with blinking, so they can maintain steady focus on prey.

However, cats cannot see things up close as clearly as humans can because they lack the muscles necessary to change the shape of their lenses. When it comes to owner recognition, opinions vary as to whether your cat recognizes you by sight alone. A 2005 study suggested human faces appear much the same to felines, with cats responding to pictures of owners only 54 percent of the time. Your cat does recognize you, but it’s typically based on the combination of senses and your habits and routines.

Taste

A cat’s sense of taste is weak compared to humans, with less than one-tenth the number of taste buds.

As obligate carnivores, cats are able to taste salty, sour and bitter flavors, as well as certain molecules exclusive to meat. They are unable to taste sweet because they lack the necessary gene. If your cat likes ice cream, it’s likely attracted to the fat content and texture rather than the sweet taste. Conversely, cats are highly sensitive to bitter tastes, which is likely a mechanism to prevent ingestion of poisonous prey and toxic plants.

When it comes to preferences in household cat food, you may notice your cat prefers one flavor over another or may suddenly stop eating a long-time favorite and insist on a change in menu. Studies show, like humans, individual cats develop preferences to flavors and textures, and will frequently react to novelty or monotony. Additionally, the foods your cat learned to like as a kitten, can dictate the foods it prefers as an adult.

Smell

A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times better than that of a human. It is its primary means of situational awareness and plays a critical role in nearly every aspect of its life. The scent of food stimulates a cat’s appetite more than the actual flavor and explains why finicky or sick cats may be more interested in stronger smelling moist or fishy foods.

The scent of other cats and their markings provides information about territorial claims, reproductive availability and social status. The scent of known environments, blankets, beds and familiar humans, sustains a sense of comfort and security.

Because a cat’s nose is so sensitive, unfamiliar or strong odors can cause discomfort or behavioral changes. For example, scented litters can result in inappropriate voiding, and strong perfumes can cause your cat to avoid you.

Touch

When it comes to touch, your cat’s ability to feel is just as extraordinary as its sight, smell or hearing. An extensive system of whiskers in and on the ears, cheeks, forehead and legs comprisea pressure-sensitive information network capable of judging space, size, density and temperature.

Likewise, many cats enjoying being touched. Gentle rhythmic stroking or scratching of the head, cheeks, chin and back can be a pleasurable tactile experience evocative of a mother cat’s grooming. Similar to humans though, many cats have a sensitivity threshold, where repetitive contact becomes unpleasant or irritating.

Pronounced cases can be diagnosed as feline hyperesthesia syndrome and are recognized by symptoms such as skin rolling or, occasionally, behavioral aggression. Pay attention to your cat’s body language. It will let you know what feels good and when enough is enough.

The writer is a longtime volunteer with King Street Cats. She lives and works in Alexandria. For more information about King Street Cats, go to www.kingstreetcats.org.

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