A polydactyl might sound a bit like a prehistoric creature, but it is, in fact, any animal with more than the usual number of digits. Cats usually have five toes on each of the front feet and four on the back ones, but some cats suffer from a genetic abnormality, called polydactyly, which usually results in one or two extra toes on the front feet, although the record for the most number of toes on one cat is twenty-eight. Because of the genetic nature of the condition, polydactyl cats tend to cluster – they are most common on the East Coast of North America, and it’s thought they may have been taken there as ship’s cats from Great Britain. The condition does not generally disadvantage the cat.
A Tight Squeeze.
Pity the human gymnast, restricted as they are by a fixed collarbone. The cat, by contrast, has no such limitations. Cats have what is known as a free-floating clavicle, which allows for greater flexibility and makes it possible for cats to turn in mid-air as well as squeeze through tiny spaces.
Cats are expert athletes and skilled climbers, so why do humans always think they can’t get down from that tree? Most of the time cats that look as if they’re in a tight spot – in a tree, on a roof, or some other place not readily accessible to humans – will come down of their own accord eventually. In fact, trying to retrieve the cat yourself might make matters worse, as the cat may become stressed and climb further up, so unless the cat is obviously injured or in imminent danger, it’s probably best to watch and wait for a while. Cats sometimes climb down trees backwards, using their claws to grip the bark. This may look a little undignified, but it’s actually a safe and controlled way for a cat to come back down to earth.
Female cats don’t ovulate until one or two days after their first mating, which means the first tom is usually not the father. The female (or queen) will then mate with a number of toms over the following week or so. The result of this often very noisy and usually nocturnal activity can be one litter, many fathers. It’s perfectly possible for every kitten in a litter to have a different father, which is why you sometimes get litter-mates who differ in looks and temperament. Cats are extremely prolific breeders – left unneutered, a female cat can be responsible for around 20,000 kittens in five years.
All parasites need a host, and cats are the unwitting carrier of choice for the toxoplasma gondii parasite, which causes an infection called toxoplasmosis. The parasite can also infect humans (indeed, around a third of us will probably be infected with it at some point), although it’s usually symptomless. The presence of the parasite rarely causes cats any bother either, but what is truly fascinating about it is the extraordinary way it gets itself transmitted to the host.
Toxoplasma gondii needs to be in a cat’s stomach to reproduce, but how does it get in there in the first place? The life cycle of this devious parasite begins in the faeces of an infected cat. If a rat or mouse picks up the parasite, this single-celled organism then travels to the rodent’s brain, where it does something remarkable – it interferes with neurons in such a way as to make the rodent apparently fearless in the face of felines. The mind-altering effect of the parasite seems to mimic sexual attraction, drawing the rodent to their unlikely object of desire. Infected rodents have been observed exhibiting behavior which seems positively suicidal, seeking out cats and throwing themselves into a dance of death at the very claws of their traditional enemy. If the rodent is caught and eaten, the parasite ends up exactly where it wants to be: in the cat’s stomach.
Five Fascinating Facts Relating To Cats.
- Cats can run up to 30 mph (nearly as fast as a tiger), but they can only sustain this speed for short bursts.
- Climbing the walls: All but the most elderly or infirm cats enjoy a clamber, but agile breeds such as Siamese, Orientals, and Bengals tend to be the most athletic, with an impressive head for heights. As many rueful owners know, Bengals especially can leap a surprisingly long distance.
- Cats have 38 muscles in each ear and they can rotate each one independently to a full 180 degrees to pinpoint the direction of sounds.
- Molar teeth in cats lack flat, grinding surfaces, so they swallow chunks whole rather than chewing. Their front incisors are mainly used for grooming.
- Cats regularly shed the outer layer of their claws when the claw outgrows the blood supply, revealing a shaper new claw underneath.
- Ovulation in female cats doesn’t occur until after mating and is triggered by the sharp spines on a tomcat’s penis.