The Phenomenal Physiology Of The Feline.

The Phenomenal Physiology Of The Feline.

A Nose For It.

A cat’s sense of smell is roughly fourteen times stronger than ours. They use these superior sniffing skills to make sense of the world around them and, crucially, to locate and catch prey. Cats have a better sense of small than humans because they have a larger olfactory epithelium – the layer of tissue which sits inside the nose and is involved in odour detection. In cats, this tissue is around 20cm2. In humans, by contrast, it is a little under 5cm2. The feline olfactory epithelium is not only much bigger than the human version; it also contains far more scent receptor cells. Cats have around 200 million scent receptors, whereas humans only have a paltry five million or so.

The Vomeronasal Organ.

Cats, along with many other animals (although not humans), have an auxiliary sense organ in the roof of the mouth known as the vomeronasal organ (VNO). This allows them to ‘taste’ smells and is thought to be particularly useful when it come to deciphering pheromones (chemicals which affect the behavior of other members of the same species).

Cat owners will be familiar with the face their cat pulls when taking in scents with their VNO, even if they don’t realise exactly what the cat is doing. When cats open their mouths slightly, twitch their noses and appear to grimace, they are actually tasting scent signals in the air. This expression is called the flehman response and it sends interesting olfactory information straight to the VNO. This distinctive gesture is just as common in big cats as it is in our own feline friends.

By A Whisker

The cat’s whiskers are a remarkable bit of kit that helps cats navigate in the dark, detect slight movements and negotiate small openings. Whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are much thicker and more deeply rooted than cat hair and they are connected to nerves under the skin. Cats use their whiskers to sense tiny changes in air currents, which help them avoid obstacles in poor light and detect the movement of prey.

Cats can move their whiskers forward or backward, and their whisker position tells us something about how the cat is feeling. When the cat is relaxed the whiskers hang slightly forward, but when a cat feels threatened they are generally drawn back. When a cat is hunting, the whiskers are often forward so they can read as much information about what’s going on around them as possible. Cats have a few additional whiskers above their eyes, which trigger a blink response, as well as on the side of the head and near the ankles. All of these combined help cats work out if they’ll be able to fit through an opening.

All Ears.

Cats have a similar hearing range to humans as far as low-frequency sounds go, but high-pitched squeaks and squeals are another matter – this is where cats really excel. Cats can detect sounds around 1.6 octaves higher than humans because they can hear noises at ultrasound frequencies – that is, sounds too high for humans to hear (above about 20kHz). As hunters, cats need to be able to tune in to every creak and rustle that might lead them to a tasty morsel, so acute hearing is an essential skill. Cats are also able to swivel their ears so they can more accurately pinpoint the source of a sound. This sensitivity to high-pitched noises may explain why cats sometimes become a little tetchy if there’s a lot of noise in the house and why they don’t take kindly to being shouted at. 

Scratch That.

There can’t be a cat owner in the world who hasn’t found themselves at the sharp end of the cat’s secret weapon: retractable claws. Even the most adorable bundle of kitten fluff comes fully tooled up with deadly talons hidden in its cute little paws. Obviously, these powerful nails are useful for holding on to prey, but they are also very handy when it comes to climbing. Cats have evolved to be brilliant tree-climbers, but clawing their way up curtains is also a lot of fun.

Lots of animals have claws, but very few can tidy them away at will. All cats big and small have retractable claws (although the cheetahs are only semi-retractable), as do members of the obscure viverrid family, which includes civets. Cats can voluntarily get their claws out on one or more paws at a time, and being able to retract them is useful to prevent getting stuck. It is much better to be able to whip them out when they need some traction or want to take a swipe at something. Keeping them tucked away inside a layer of skin and fur also protects them when they’re not in use.

Five Fascinating Facts Relating To Cats:
  • A cat’s brain recognises thousands of scents and they’re better even than dogs at discriminating between smells.
  • A cat’s signature scent mix is their identity card, announcing their age, sex, family connections, reproductive status, health, mood and more.
  • Bodily excretions reveal what they’ve eaten, when they were last in the area, and which way they were going.
  • Their super-sensitive whiskers detect airflow and prey movement when navigating and hunting
  • A cat’s whiskers alter their position with mood: compact and flat against the cheeks signal frustration, whilst forward-swept whiskers can mean curiosity when they’re curved and fanned, or pain if they’re straight.




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