How Your Young Cat Sees, Hears And Smells

Your young cat’s senses have been adapted to help him hunt. Find out how.

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The most important of the five senses for a cat is smell. Madhatter101/iStock/Thinkstock
Dr. Brian Roberts

You might have noticed that your adolescent cat has a lot of energy, especially at night. Cats are definitely nocturnal, because in the wild, that’s when most of the hunting happens. Not surprisingly, they’ve developed heightened senses — from night vision to the ability to hear ultrasonic frequencies — that help them to be efficient hunters.

How Your Young Cat Sees
I’m certain you’ve seen the “eye shine” from your cat or the way their eyes “glow” when the light hits them just right at night. What you’re seeing is the result of an adaptation that helps them hunt at night. Cats have a reflective layer of cells on the retina that increases the amount of ambient light detected by photoreceptors. It’s like built-in night vision! Other adaptations are a larger field of view and better tracking ability than we have.

What about color? Cats do see color, just not the full spectrum that we have. The color that cats can see is limited to blues and grays. That’s because color is best detected by photoreceptors in the retina called cones. Humans have more of these receptors, while cats have many more photoreceptors call rods. Rods work best in low light — again, another reason cats do well hunting at dusk and night.

However, there is a new report out this year that found cats can see in the ultraviolet spectrum. There are certain visual pigments in the retinal photoreceptors that allow for this super-vision. What does that mean? Well, it means that cats can see things like dried urine or a little white rabbit hopping in a snow bank. Think of it as having a black light, which police use to find blood and other fluids at a crime scene. Cats have this built in! For example, a cat could track a mouse to its nest by following an “invisible” urine trail.

While cats have a distinct advantage in being able to see at nighttime, your young kitty’s visual acuity — the ability to see objects clearly — is not that good. While people may be able to see the lettering of a street sign from 100 feet away, your cat would only see a blurry outline of the sign and not the letters on it.

Cats do have reasonably well-developed depth perception; however, some breeds like Siamese and other Asian breeds do not. You may notice that those breeds — for example, Himalayans — will bob their head before jumping up to a table or off the couch. Those breeds may also have spontaneous nystagmus, or side-to-side fine eye movement. Some people call it “eye twitching.” If you look closely at an Oriental breed’s eyes with their head held still, you can see fine oscillations of the eyes, moving back and forth or rotating very quickly.

So, in summary, cats see really well in low light, can see some color but also ultraviolet spectrum, and are best at tracking moving objects.

How Your Young Cat Hears
Audition, or the sense of hearing, is similar to vision in that cats have adaptations for finding prey.

For starters, cats have one of the broadest hearing ranges of all mammals. They not only hear high frequencies that we cannot hear, but they’re also pretty good at hearing low frequencies. Most prey, like mice, communicate with ultrasonic squeaks, and cats can hear those.

Having upright ears and about six times the number of ear muscles, cats can also detect the location of sound better than we can.

If you have a white cat with blue eyes, you may have been told that your cat is deaf. Cats’ hair color is determined by a number of different genes. White color is coded by a dominant gene, which is usually paired with genes that code for blue eyes. The likelihood of deafness is great in these cats. It’s a very complex mode of inheritance called pleiotropic gene segregation with additional polygenic effects. Importantly, the affected cat does not need to have a pure-white coat. Cats who are white with spotting of colors, and mixed-breed cats who are white, can have varying degrees of deafness. So what is going on with white, blue-eyed cats being deaf?

Studies have found that important areas of the cochlea or inner ear don’t develop normally and degenerate. This is likely due to lack of melanin, which gives hair color. The inner ear has tiny hairs, which sense sound at different frequencies. These cells are affected in white cats with blue eyes. All of the aspects that account for deafness in white cats are not completely understood; however, completely and partially deaf white cats have been used for decades as models of congenital deafness in people.

How Your Cat Smells
Adolescent cats can be pretty active and jump/pounce on all sorts of things. If you want to see an adolescent cat to go wild, just open a can of tuna in a room furthest away from them. Trust me, they’ll find you in about 30 nanoseconds.

Cats have a keen sense of smell, or olfaction. It’s probably their most important of the five senses. Anatomically, cats have a highly developed smell interpretation area of the brain called the olfactory bulb. It’s significantly larger than that of humans.

Not only do cats convey scent information through the nasal passages, but also through the use of a pheromone receptor called the vomeronasal organ. This is a little patch of sensory cells and nerves located on the front of the hard palate. If you are brave enough to open your cat’s mouth, you can see it just behind the top front teeth. Outdoor adolescent cats, especially males, will use this part of the olfactory system to detect females in heat, other males in their territory and which neighborhood cats used your yard as a litter box!

You may have even observed your young cat use this organ by exhibiting the Flehmen response. They will raise their head, open their mouths a bit and curl their upper lips back while sometime “licking” the air. It’s sort of like a snake’s tongue. Your cat is sampling some odors, likely pheromones, which can tell them what other cats left a scent, their sex and if they are friend or foe. Much of the social interaction among cats is through scent. Pheromones from the cheeks and anal glands are important aspects of cat-to-cat communication. If you watch cats greet each other, they will rub faces and then move to the naughty bits under the tail.

Hopefully, you have an adolescent cat who is good at using the litter box. Scent is an important aspect of where cats may use the bathroom. Litter boxes that are dirty with a lot of soiling will be avoided. Even the litter itself can be an issue. Scented litters and pine litter can be real turnoffs for cats.

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Article Categories:
Behavior and Training · Cats