Cat senses: How much do you know?

Posted by Betty. August 23rd 2014.

Everyone who has ever spent time with a cat knows that their heightened senses must give them a different view of the world. The way that a slight sound or sudden movement can make a cat react instantly illustrates how they interact with their environment in a way that is very different to humans.

So how much do you know about your cat’s senses?

Cat getting stroked


Cats love acting under cover of darkness and much of their hunting is done as part of their nocturnal activities. In fact, a cat can see in only one-fifth of the light intensity that humans need to distinguish objects in the dark. The striking phenomenon of “cats’ eyes” occurs when a feline eye reflects light due to a layer of cells called the tapetum lucidum that lie behind the retina.

These are the cells which enable a cat to see form and movement in very low light.


Cats can rotate their ears to pick up directional sounds, which is why their ears literally move to point at what they are listening to. Their range of hearing is also different from that of a human, with higher ranges of up to 60 to 65 kilohertz enabling them to hear their kittens’ ultrasonic noises as well as the ultrasonic calls of small rodents.

In musical terms, human hearing covers about 8.5 octaves whilst a cat hears nearer 10 but what appears as two separate sounds to a human ear may seem like one sound to a cat due to other limitations. For example, a cat needs about five degrees of separation to distinguish between two different tones while human hearing can tell the difference between sounds only 0.5 degrees apart.

cat senses (2)


Perhaps the most important feline sense is that of smell. Cats have 200 million odour-sensitive cells in their noses (humans have nearer 5 million) and this gives them an extremely powerful ability to pinpoint odours.

A cat can detect the presence of other cats and animals over distance, mark territory by leaving scents and even use smell more than taste to judge whether food is suitable.


Cats are extremely tactile creatures but their most important touch-sensing device is the whiskers. Sprouting from cheeks, lips, and eyebrows these are far more than normal hairs. In fact these vibrissae are special sensory appendages which act as fine-sensing object detection devices. A cat’s whiskers play a big role in their night-hunting abilities too.


Cats have less ability to differentiate between various tastes than humans as they have less than 500 taste buds whilst we have 9,000. This is partly why a cat’s relationship with food is based more heavily on their highly developed sense of smell.

However, a cat will of course respond to flavours and textures but it is temperature that can play a more important role. Food that is below room temperature is generally unwelcome to a cat, although no-one is really quite sure why.

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