Cat Senses: An Exploration
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley January 22, 2019
Knowing how our animals experience the world around them is important in being the best pet parents we can be. It gives us a better understanding of their needs and allows us to tailor their environment in a way that enables them to thrive. Cats have a unique way of experiencing the world around them, including how they see, smell, hear, touch, and taste. All of these senses have evolved to make them skilled hunters that can be active in low light. These senses also allow them to avoid predators, have great agility when moving around, and communicate with other members of their species and with us (Stella & Buffington, 2013). Keep reading to learn more about how your cat experiences the world, and how their senses make them the fascinating creatures we love so much.
As predators, a cat’s vision is important to them. It allows them to take information from their environment and respond to it appropriately to survive. This includes finding and catching prey and moving around their environment skillfully, even at great heights. Cats have a 200-degree field of view, with their peripheral vision being 30 degrees wide.
Cats have poor binocular vision. They also have dichromatic vision, meaning they do not see colors similarly to humans (CFHC, 2014). All mammalian eyes have photoreceptors called cones and rods. Cones assist with color vision while rods assist with seeing in low levels of light (Gelatt; Jacobs, 2009). Cats have fewer cones in their eyes compared to humans, which is why they see colors differently than us and are classified as having dichromatic vision. Cats can see hues of blue, yellow, and grey, but other colors are hard for them to see (Clark & Clark 2016).
Some studies have suggested that cats can see ultraviolet light (Douglas & Jeffery, 2014). Cats are excellent at seeing in low lights, meaning that compared to humans, they do indeed have more rods than us. It is a misconception that cats can see in complete darkness. While their eyes allow them to see in very low light, they still need some level of light in order to see (Brown & Bradshaw, 2013).
The structure known as the tapetum lucidum is a membrane in the back of the cat’s eye that helps reflect light back through the rods, helping perfect their vision in low lights. This also gives cats the glowing, shimmery eyes you see in pictures or when you shine a flashlight towards them (Commings, 2006). The structure of a cat’s eye is specially designed for them to hunt small, fast-moving prey in a variety of contexts. Their vertical pupils can constrict and contract based on the level of light that is available in the environment, allowing them the ability to adapt diurnal, nocturnal, or crepuscular behavioral patterns based on their environment and prey or based on their owner’s schedule (Brown & Bradshaw, 2013; Banks et al., 2015).
While a cat’s sight is important to their ability to navigate their environment, their sense of smell is actually the most important sense they have. With 200 million odor-detecting cells, most people would be surprised to learn that cats actually have a better sense of smell than dogs. Cats primarily use their sense of smell to communicate with other cats and to find and catch prey. Cats use their sense of smell when investigating and defending their territory.
Cats use urine and feces to mark their territory (Bradshaw et al., 2015). Moreover, cats will roam around and scent mark to warn other cats to stay out of their space. While walking their territory, cats will use their nose to identify if any strange cats have come across their space. Cats also communicate with one another using pheromones and scent glands in different locations of their body. They use these scent glands to communicate with us by rubbing them on us in order to mark us with their scent (Vitale Shreve & Udell, 2017).
Cats have an organ called the vomeronasal organ that is common in many mammal species and some reptile species. This organ is on the roof of the mouth and contains sensory neurons, which help detect information from the environment and send it to the brain (Vitale Shreve & Udell, 2017). If you've ever seen a cat curl its lips up by its gums when it smells a particularly good scent, this is known as the flehmen response. The flehmen response draws scents, particularly pheromones, through the vomeronasal organ helping to deepen the scent and provide the animal more cues about the environment. We know that scent and taste are closely linked senses. When using the flehmen response, cats typically are closing off their nasal passages and drawing scents through their mouth and through the vomeronasal organ to better detect the chemical composition of the scent, essentially tasting the smell. This behavior is particularly important in feline mating behavior (Hart & Leedy 1987; Bradshaw et al., 2015).
Because a cat’s sense of smell is so strong, cat owners should be mindful of things in the environment that might be overstimulating to their cat’s sense of smell. One important item to be mindful of is your cat’s litter. When given a choice, cats show a preference for unscented litter, and some cats will avoid using litter boxes with scented litter. Cats are also particularly sensitive to dirty litter boxes. Imagine if your sense of smell were about 14 times stronger than it is now and you went into a dirty bathroom. That would not be enjoyable for you, would it? It is important to keep this in mind and to make an effort to keep your cat’s litter box fresh and clean. It will also be beneficial to your cat to limit the use of products with strong scents if your cat will have regular access to it (Villeneuve-Beugnet & Beugnet, 2018).
However, because your cat’s sense of smell is so strong, you can use this to provide environmental enrichment. We all know that cats tend to go crazy for catnip, but try giving your cat other fun items to sniff. You can sprinkle different spices around the house to encourage your cat to use their nose. You can also spray different colognes, perfumes, or other items in different areas of the house to encourage sniffing. Another way you can use your cat’s sense of smell is by using calming pheromones to improve their welfare. Synthetically made pheromones are available at most pet stores. This type of product has a calming effect on cats and can help reduce anxiety-related behaviors and inter-cat aggression. Sharing of personal scents can also be used to help reduce inter-cat aggression. Some behaviorists suggest that you can use a shared brush or towel to rub on cats in the same household to create a community scent. This helps facilitate positive social interactions (Vitale Shreve & Udell, 2017).
Cats also have dogs beat with their sense of hearing. Because cats are strongly conditioned to hunt small, fast animals such as rats or rabbits, their sense of hearing has evolved to be well honed to hear higher pitched sounds compared to humans and dogs (think mouse squeaks!). They can hear up to 64 kHz (Fay & Popper, 1994). Cat ears can also move independently of one another, allowing them to pinpoint sounds with great accuracy.
One way in which you can enrich your cat’s environment through their sense of hearing is by providing cat-specific music to listen to. A study showed that while cats show no response to human music, they do respond to music made at frequencies that cats can hear (Snowdon et al., 2015). You can find cat-specific music for your feline friend on all the major music apps. To provide your cat auditory enrichment, you could turn on cat-specific music when you leave for work during the day. If you have a cat that is fearful of loud noises, such as fireworks, you could also turn music on when you know there will be fireworks. This could help drown out the loud noises and provide a calming stimulus.
Cats have whiskers, also known as vibrissae, and this is one of their primary modes of touch. Whiskers contain nerve endings that send information from the environment to the brain and help create a map of the environment (Grunbaum, 2013). Whiskers are very sensitive and some cats may show whisker sensitivity, which makes them hesitant to eat or drink out of deep bowls. If you suspect your cat has whisker sensitivity, providing shallow bowls will help them eat and drink comfortably (Stella & Buffington, 2013).
Another way cats touch the world around them is with their paws. Cats have sensitive pads on the bottom of their feet and claws that help them get signals from the environment. Cats will use their paws to scratch surfaces as a way to mark their territory and also use them for defense and hunting (Lansberg, 1991; Homberger et al., 2009). This behavior provides tactile stimulation to them. To encourage mental and physical stimulation in your cat, provide toys, scratchers, beds, and cat trees in multiple textures. This will help stimulate their sense of touch.
Of course, cats also experience touch through interactions with us! Many cats love to be pet. Some may be finicky and only like to be pet in certain areas of the body or in a certain way, but there are still ways you can provide tactile enrichment for them. If your cat enjoys being pet, you can change the way you pet them by providing them a deep muscle massage, scratching them lightly with your nails, using a brush glove, or a variety of other ways.
You can also provide tactile stimulation through brushing. Many different types of brushes are available at pet stores, so find a couple varieties your cat enjoys and switch between them. If your cat does not love being petted or brushed, you can still provide tactile enrichment by finding mounted brushes. These can hang in doorways or in other places in the house and allow cats to brush themselves how they like. There are also other types of cat trees or tunnels that provide brushes or other forms of tactile stimulation.
Cats may have us beat with their sense of smell, but when it comes to their sense of taste, cats are pretty lacking in this area. They have very few taste buds compared to dogs and humans. As obligate carnivores (which mean cats only eat animal protein), they have not evolved a refined palate of taste. Cats show a strong preference for foods high in protein, fat, and low in sugar and salt. Cats actually lack a taste receptor for sweet items, which is common in other carnivorous species as well (Lei et al., 2015).
While cats do not have an extensive sense of taste, you can still enrich their taste buds by providing food in a variety of flavors and textures. Most pet food brands offer foods in a variety of options. If you feed your cat wet food, you could try feeding pâtés or foods that are shredded in gravy. You can also let your cat try different protein options and switch between chicken, duck, turkey, or fish-based foods. In the summer, you could provide your cat frozen treats made from wet food or different cat-friendly broths or gravies. You can freeze these items in ice cube trays and give them a nice cool snack when it is hot out. In the winter, you can add warm water or microwave your cat’s food to heat it. Heating the food also helps improve the smell, providing enrichment for both their sense of taste and their sense of smell.
Now that you know a little more about how your cat experience the world, try to come up with some ideas for how you can use this information to enrich your cat’s life. While many cats are content to stay curled up in our laps all day, they still need mental and physical stimulation. Understanding how your cat sees, smells, hears, touches, and tastes the environment around them helps you build an environment with variety and complexity. You can encourage them to use their bodies and their brains in new and exciting ways. Try to find one activity from each sense category that you can do with your cat to encourage them to use their senses. Also use this information to make your household as cat-friendly as possible by being cognizant of sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches that might be overstimulating or frightening to your cat. Build an environment that allows them to avoid items that may make them uncomfortable or use positive training methods to help them overcome their sensitivities.
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