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Cat senses

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A cat using its senses for exploration

Cat senses are adaptations that allow cats to be highly efficient predators. Cats have acute sight, hearing and smell, and their sense of touch is enhanced by long whiskers that protrude from their heads and bodies. These senses allow cats to hunt effectively in dim light or at night.



File:Reflektion des Auges.JPG
The tapetum lucidum reflecting green in the pupils of a cat.
Testing indicates that a cat's vision is superior at night in comparison to humans, and inferior in daylight[citation needed]. Cats, like dogs and many other animals, have a tapetum lucidum, which is a reflective layer behind the retina that reflects light that passes through the retina back into the eye.[1] While this enhances the ability to see in low light, it appears to reduce net visual acuity, thus detracting when light is abundant. In very bright light, the slit-like iris closes very narrowly over the eye, reducing the amount of light on the sensitive retina, and improving depth of field. Big cats have pupils that contract to a round point. The tapetum and other mechanisms give the cat a minimum light detection threshold up to seven times lower than that of humans. Recent studies have indicated that cats may also see better in the near infra-red spectrum than previously thought, however more research needs to be completed. Variation in color of cats' eyes in flash photographs is largely due to the reflection of the flash by the tapetum.
File:Cat eye.JPG
A closeup of a cat's eye, showing green iris and dilated pupil.

Many cats have a visual field of view estimated at 200°, versus 180° in humans, with a binocular field (overlap in the images from each eye) narrower than that of humans. As with most predators, their eyes face forward, affording depth perception at the expense of field of view. Field of view is largely dependent upon the placement of the eyes, but may also be related to the eye's construction. Instead of the fovea which gives humans sharp central vision, cats have a central band known as the visual streak.[2] Cats can see some colors, and can tell the difference between red, blue and yellow lights, as well as between red and green lights.[3] Cats are able to distinguish between blues and violets better than between colours near the red end of the spectrum.[4][5]

A white cat with heterochromatic eyes.

Cats have a third eyelid, the nictitating membrane, which is a thin cover that closes from the side and appears when the cat's eyelid opens. This membrane partially closes if the cat is sick; although in a sleepy, content cat this membrane is often visible. If a cat chronically shows the third eyelid, it should be taken to a veterinarian for evaluation.

Unlike humans, cats do not need to blink their eyes on a regular basis to keep their eyes lubricated (with tears). Unblinking eyes are probably an advantage when hunting. Cats will, however, "squint" their eyes, usually as a form of communication. Cat owners can often entice their pets to squint or even fully close their eyes just by talking to them in a soothing or pleasing manner. Many cats will also squint in response to seeing their owners squint. When a cat does blink, it is a slower blink than in humans, so it will typically blink one eye at a time so it can still see from the other eye. When the cat is looking at someone while doing this, it gives the impression that the cat is winking at them.

Cats have a wide variation in eye color, the most typical colors being golden, green and orange. Blue eyes are usually associated with the Siamese breed, but they are also found in white cats and kittens. It is a common misconception that all white cats with blue eyes are deaf. This is not true, as there are many blue-eyed cats with perfect hearing. However, white cats with blue eyes do have slightly higher incidences of genetic deafness than white cats of other eye colors.[6] White cats having one blue and one other-colored eye are called "odd-eyed" and may be deaf on the same side as the blue eye.[7] This is the result of the yellow iris pigmentation rising to the surface of only one eye, as blue eyes are normal at birth before the adult pigmentation has had a chance to express itself in the eye(s).


Humans and cats have a similar range of hearing on the low end of the scale, but cats can hear much higher-pitched sounds, up to 64 kHz, which is 1.6 octaves above the range of a human, and even 1 octave above the range of a dog.[8] When listening for something, a cat's ears will swivel in that direction; a cat's ear flaps (pinnae) can independently point backwards as well as forwards and sideways to pinpoint the source of the sound. Cats can judge within three inches (7.5 cm) the location of a sound being made one yard (approximately 91 cm) away—this can be useful for localizing prey, etc.


A domestic cat's sense of smell is about fourteen times as strong as a human's.[9] Cats have twice as many smell-sensitive cells in their noses as people do, which means they can smell things humans are not even aware of. Cats also have a scent organ in the roof of their mouths called the vomeronasal (or Jacobson's) organ. When a cat wrinkles its muzzle, lowers its chin, and lets its tongue hang a bit, it is opening the passage to the vomeronasal. This is called gaping, "sneering", "snake mouth", or "flehming". Gaping is the equivalent of the Flehmen response in other animals, such as dogs, horses and big cats.


Whiskers on the face of a tuxedo cat.

A cat has about twenty-four movable vibrissae ("whiskers"), in four rows on each upper lip on each side of its nose (some cats may have more). These are also a few on each cheek, tufts over the eyes, bristles on the chin, the cat's inner "wrists", and at the back of the legs.[10] The Sphynx (a nearly hairless breed) may have full length, short, or no whiskers at all.

The structure of the brain region (barrel cortex) which receives information from the vibrissae is similar to that found in the visual cortex which permits the cat to create a three dimensional map of its surroundings. It should be noted that this doesn't mean that sensing with vibrissae is a type of vision. It is still a touch sensation and environmental information is built up incrementally (in small steps).[11][12][13][14]

Vibrissae aid sensation and navigation. The upper two rows of whiskers are able to be moved independently from the lower two rows for greater precision during measurement. A cat's whiskers are more than twice as thick as ordinary cat hairs, and their roots are three times deeper in a cat's tissue than other hairs. They have numerous nerve endings at their base, which give cats extraordinarily detailed information about nearby air movements and objects with which they make physical contact. They enable a cat to know that it is near obstacles without it needing to see them.

Whiskers also aid in hunting. High speed photography reveals that when a cat is unable to see its prey because it is too close to its mouth, its whiskers move so as to form a basket shape around its muzzle in order to precisely detect the prey's location.[15][16] A cat whose whiskers have been damaged may bite the wrong part of its prey indicating that they provide cats with detailed information about the shape and activity of its prey. Whiskers may also help cats to detect scents more readily by directing air currents to their nose and mouth.[citation needed]

Whiskers are also an indication of the cat's attitude. Whiskers point forward when a cat is inquisitive and friendly, and lie flat on the face when the cat is being defensive or aggressive.[citation needed]


The cat family was shown in 2005 to lack the T1R2 protein, one of two required for function of the sweetness sensory receptor; a deletion in the relevant gene (Tas1r2) causes a shift in the genetic reading frame, leading to transcription stopping early and no detectable mRNA or protein produced.[17]The other protein, T1R3, is present and identical to that of other animals, and the relevant taste buds are still present but inactive. Such a genetic marker found in the entire family and not other animals must be the result of a mutation in an early ancestor; as a deletion mutation it could not revert, and thus would be inherited by all descendants, as the evolutionary tree branched out. Most scientists[citation needed] now believe this is the root of the cat family's extremely specialized evolutionary niche as a hunter and carnivore. Their modified sense of taste would cause them to some degree to ignore plants, a large part of whose taste appeal derives from their high sugar content, in favor of a high-protein carnivorous diet, which would still stimulate their remaining taste receptors.

Computer simulation of the cat brain

There have been reports of the computer simulation of a cat brain, that scientists have simulated a cat's cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain, using a massive supercomputer.[18][19] But the reports have raised controversy.[20] [21] The computer does not actually think like a cat. The computer simulation is cat-scale, meaning that the simulation is powerful enough to simulate a cat brain, but it is not actually a simulation of a cat brain. Also, there are conflicting views that say the simulation uses a faithful reproduction of the neurons in the brain, and also say that the simulation does not use biologically realistic simulations of the neurons in a cat brain. Other parts of the controversy are about the motives for reverse-engineering a cat brain. For neuroscientists, the goal is to understand how the brain's architecture using biological neurons leads to consciousness and neurological disorders, and for computer scientists, the goal is to understand brain architecture in order to create new kinds of electronics.

There are a number of reasons the cat brain is a goal of computer simulations. Cats are a familiar and easily-kept animal, so the physiology of cats has been particularly well studied. The physical structure of human brains and cat brains are very similar.[22] Cats, like humans, have binocular vision that gives them depth perception.[23]

Building artificial mammal brains requires ever more powerful computers as the brain gets more complex, from the mouse brain, to the rat brain (in 2007), to the cat brain, and ultimately to the human brain. Building artificial mammal brains advances the research of both neuroscience and artificial intelligence, but also leads to questions of the definition of sentient and conscious lifeforms, and to the ethics of artificial consciousness.[24]


  1. ^ Braekevelt CR (1990). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Fine structure of the feline tapetum lucidum"]. Anat Histol Embryol 19 (2): 97–105. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0264.1990.tb00892.x. PMID 2240589. 
  2. ^ Hughes A (1975). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "A quantitative analysis of the cat retinal ganglion cell topography"]. J. Comp. Neurol. 163 (1): 107–28. doi:10.1002/cne.901630107. PMID 1159109. 
  3. ^ Schneider H, Beller FK (1 April 1993). "The Spectral Sensitivity of Dark- and Light-adapted Cat Retinal Ganglion Cells". Journal of Neuroscience 13 (4): 1543–1550. PMID 8463834. http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/reprint/13/4/1543. 
  4. ^ Cat Vision and How Cats See
  5. ^ Veterinary Topics: Feline Vision
  6. ^ Geigy CA, Heid S, Steffen F, Danielson K, Jaggy A, Gaillard C (2007). "Does a pleiotropic gene explain deafness and blue irises in white cats?". Vet. J. 173 (3): 548–53. doi:10.1016/j.tvjl.2006.07.021. PMID 16956778. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1090-0233(06)00169-9. 
  7. ^ "White Cats, Eye Colours and Deafness". http://www.messybeast.com/whitecat.htm. Retrieved 2006-09-05. 
  8. ^ Strain, G.M., How Well Do Dogs and Other Animals Hear?
  9. ^ "The Nose Knows". About.com. http://cats.about.com/cs/felineanatomy/a/catsnose_scent.htm. Retrieved 2006-11-29. 
  10. ^ Cat's Whiskers
  11. ^ Dykes RW, Dudar JD, Tanji DG, Publicover NG (September 1977). "Somatotopic projections of mystacial vibrissae on cerebral cortex of cats". J. Neurophysiol. 40 (5): 997–1014. PMID 903802. http://jn.physiology.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=903802. 
  12. ^ Gottschaldt K-M, Young DW (October 1977). "Properties of different functional types of neurones in the cat's rostral trigeminal nuclei responding to sinus hair stimulation". J. Physiol. (Lond.) 272 (1): 57–84. PMID 592153. PMC 1353593. http://www.jphysiol.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=592153. 
  13. ^ Nomura S, Itoh K, Sugimoto T, Yasui Y, Kamiya H, Mizuno N (November 1986). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Mystacial vibrissae representation within the trigeminal sensory nuclei of the cat"]. J. Comp. Neurol. 253 (1): 121–33. doi:10.1002/cne.902530110. PMID 2432098. 
  14. ^ Haight JR (September 1972). "The general organization of somatotopic projections to SII cerebral neocortex in the cat". Brain Res. 44 (2): 483–502. doi:10.1016/0006-8993(72)90315-0. PMID 5075705. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/0006-8993(72)90315-0. 
  15. ^ Cat Traits Floridaconservation.org
  16. ^ Mel Sunquist; Sunquist, Fiona; Sunquist, Melvin E. (2002). Wild cats of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-77999-8. 
  17. ^ Li X, Li W, Wang H, et al (July 2005). "Pseudogenization of a sweet-receptor gene accounts for cats' indifference toward sugar". PLoS Genet. 1 (1): 27–35. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0010003. PMID 16103917. PMC 1183522. http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.0010003. 
  18. ^ "IBM computer simulates cat’s cerebral cortex". Associated Press. November 18, 2009. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34015301/ns/technology_and_science-science/. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  19. ^ Adee, Sally (November 18, 2009). "IBM Unveils a New Brain Simulator". IEEE Spectrum. http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/ibm-unveils-a-new-brain-simulator. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  20. ^ Adee, Sally (January 2010). "Two simulations and an angry e-mail reveal the conflicting goals of supercomputer brain modeling". IEEE Spectrum. http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/catbrain-fever. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  21. ^ Burt, Jeffrey (November 24, 2009). "Rival Scientist Calls IBM Cat Brain Simulation a Scam". IT Infrastructure - eWeek. http://www.eweek.com/c/a/IT-Infrastructure/Rival-Scientist-Calls-IBM-Cat-Brain-Simulation-a-Scam-384096/. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  22. ^ Helium.com, The Cat's Brain
  23. ^ Grossberg, Stephen and Grunewald, Alexander (March 2002). "Temporal dynamics of binocular disparity processing with corticogeniculate interactions". Neural Networks. doi:10.1016/S0893-6080(01)00149-6. http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=607592. Retrieved December 31, 2009 (abstract only). 
  24. ^ Koch, Christof and Tononi, Giulio (June 2008). "Can Machines Be Conscious?". IEEE Spectrum. http://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/imaging/can-machines-be-conscious. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 


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