Most cats today live in a safe environment with all the food, love and attention they require. However, they still display many of the characteristics that were developed for their survival; when hunting for food was very much a part of their daily routine.
Many people are under the misapprehension that cats can see in the dark. This is not true, as they can’t see any better in the dark than we can. However, they can see more than humans in low levels of light because they have large corneas and pupils, which collect more light in dimly lit conditions. They also have a reflective structure at the back of the eye called the tapetum, which reflects light back out of the eye. Their eyes are set further apart than human eyes too and this gives them a much wider field of vision.
Apart from regulating the quantity of light, cats use their pupils to focus with because their lenses aren’t as flexible as ours. The pupils also display the cat’s mood, by increasing in size to express fear and changing to narrow strips when the cat is angry. Colors are also seen differently. Cats see red and yellow colors as bluish and greenish tones. They can, however, see ultraviolet color, which is invisible to humans.
When cats eat, it is their whiskers and sense of smell that tells them where their food is rather than their sight. It is thought that cats can detect moving objects much better than stationary ones, which is probably one of the reasons they are so fascinated by things that move. Cats have a wide variation of eye color, with the most common being golden, green and orange.
Cats have very keen hearing and can detect sounds that humans can’t hear at all. They are particularly good at detecting sounds that have very high and low frequencies. Cats mainly use their hearing for detecting prey, but it is also an important tool for communicating with other cats. When listening cats can swivel their ears round to the direction of the noise and the flaps of the ears (pinnae) can independently point backwards, forwards or sideways to pick up the sound.
A cat’s sense of smell is considerably better than humans’, but not as good as a dog’s. Cats have glands that secrete pheromones. These scents are different in each cat, just as fingerprints are in humans. They are found on the cheeks, lower legs and under the tail and are deposited by rubbing or spraying as the cat moves around. This marks out territory and alerts other cats to their presence.
Cats also have an organ in the mouth, which is called the Jacobson organ. This is used for identifying other cats. When using this organ, the cat will pull its lips aside and suck air through its teeth into its mouth.
This sense is not as well developed in cats. They only have a few taste buds along the edge of the tongue. They have few taste buds for tasting sweet foods and are not very sensitive to the taste of salt. This is probably because they are true carnivores and their sense of taste is geared towards identifying protein and fat. This can unfortunately put them at risk, as they are unable to taste or smell if anything is poisonous or not.
Like us, cats have touch receptors all over the body. These nerve cells transfer sensations of pressure, temperature and pain from any point to the brain. They have a number of moveable whiskers (vibrissae) on various parts of the body, which assist with navigation and sensation. Whiskers are more than twice as thick as ordinary hairs and the roots are set three times deeper. Detailed information is passed on to the cat concerning air movement, air pressure and touch. Whiskers are a valuable tool for a nocturnal hunter such as the cat and also assist them in judging the size of spaces and gaps.