If you suspect your cat’s senses are superior to a human’s, you’re right – for the most part. Let’s look at how his five senses compare to yours, and how he uses them to assess and interact with the world around him.
Have you ever wondered if your cat sees in color, or how much better his sense of smell or hearing is than yours? The truth is, a cat’s senses work in fascinating ways, and they’re superior to ours (though not in every case!) in more ways than you might think. In this article, we’ll examine the feline sense of smell, sight, hearing, touch and taste, and how they compare to ours.
When it comes to the sense of smell, kitties win hands down. Felines have 200 million odor sensors – in comparison, we have a mere five million. Veterinarian Dr. Eric Broad adds that besides using the nose, a cat can smell with an additional olfactory organ called the Jacobson’s organ, located in the upper surface of his mouth. (Have you ever seen your cat staring into space with his mouth partially open? He’s using his Jacobson’s organ to scent something out!) So it’s no wonder that cats can smell 14 times better than humans.
Cats depend on their olfactory powers to learn about their surroundings, to detect other cats and people, and smell out impending danger. They will also often leave their own scent behind. According to veterinarian Dr. Pam Johnson Bennett’s website, cats have scent glands on their paw pads, their cheeks, lips, forehead, flanks and tail, as well as their two anal glands. So, not only do cats have a super sense of smell; they also leave their own smell behind for other cats to detect!
While both felines and humans can hear lower frequencies, a cat’s hearing at the opposite end of the spectrum is far superior to ours. According to the Cornell University of Feline Health Center, cats can detect sounds with a frequency of 60,000 vibrations per second while we only hear up to 20,000 vibrations per second. In fact, veterinarian Dr. Carly Patterson says that kitties can hear high-pitched noises that are barely audible to human ears, such as the buzz from an LCD computer screen.
This extraordinary sense of hearing is partially due to the cat’s triangular-shaped ears, which funnel and amplify sounds. A cat’s ears also boast 32 muscles, which allows him to rotate them 180° to catch sounds from a much broader range than we can – our own ears only have six muscles and are pretty much stationary!
Look at your kitty’s eyes. Do you notice that they’re set more widely apart than yours? This gives the cat a 200° range of vision, as compared to our 180° range. And just look at his pupils: they can go from thin and narrow to round and full in seconds, especially when the light is dim (or he’s ready to play!). The University of California has shown that cats can adjust their vision to see in a much wider range of low-lit areas than we can. Cats literally open the eyes wider, and can dilate their pupils to see five times better than we can at night and in dark environments.
In the daytime, however, humans actually have better vision. We see the world in full color, whereas scientists believe cats can see in only green and blue. A cat’s vision also gets blurry after 20 feet. So in this instance, we see better than our cats – except when light levels are low.
Besides using the nose, a cat can smell with an additional olfactory organ called the Jacobson’s organ, located in the upper surface of his mouth.
The skin is the largest sensory organ that we and our cats possess. While we have very little hair on our skin, however, a cat’s fur provides him with a host of functions related to touch. Yngve Zotterman, a neurophysiologist, found that gently stroking the guard hairs or main topcoat of a cat evokes different reactions depending on the speed and intensity of each stroke. They reactions can range from aggression and tension to joy!
But it’s a kitty’s whiskers that are most amazing. Most cats have 12 whiskers arranged in four rows on each cheek. They help a cat determine the ambient temperature, how windy it is, which way the wind is coming from, and even the force of the wind. Veterinarian Dr. Kathryn Primm says that cats also have the ability to sense atmospheric changes – a trait inherited from their wild feline ancestors.
Additionally, a cat’s whiskers act as an extension to his body. Dr. Patterson states they transmit critical sensory information, such as the ability to fit through passageways, and even give him a sense of overall balance.
The sense of taste is one area where humans are superior to cats. We have 9,000 taste receptors, while cats have only 473. It’s one reason why cats are often referred to as finicky or picky eaters. We humans enjoy five forms of taste — sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. Cats, however, have only four. According to a 2005 study, scientists at Monell Chemical Senses Center found that cats do not have a taste receptor for sweetness.
Knowing something about your cat’s five senses can help you better understand how he experiences the world, and even give you some valuable insights into his behavior!