10 amazing things you never knew about cats


26 June 2024
Did you know cats are evolutionary marvels with a body that is perfectly fit for purpose? Karen Bush explains.

No matter how long you’ve been a cat person, there’s always something new to discover! Modern technology has helped to reveal some of the mysteries that have puzzled owners for years, and there’s no doubt that our feline companions are amazing creatures.

1. The cat’s whiskers

The phrase ‘the cat’s whiskers’ really couldn’t be more appropriate because those long hairs on your cat’s face are quite brilliant. On average, cats have around 24 whiskers, 12 on each side of the face, in four horizontal rows. There are also usually three over each eye, a few shorter ones on their chins, plus sensory whiskers on the back of the front legs, called carpal vibrissae.

Each extra thick long hair is embedded three times more deeply into the skin than ordinary coat hairs and is surrounded by a network of nerve endings and as many as 100 — 200 sensory neurons that transmit information to the brain. Incredibly sensitive, as well as feeling solid objects, they can detect the tiniest of air currents, compensate for poor close-up vision, enable your cat to safely navigate his environment, and to determine whether he can fit into small spaces without getting stuck.

They are even affected by gravity so your cat always knows which way is up and which way is down if he falls off something and needs to employ his righting reflex! Whiskers can also communicate how he is feeling: when hunting or excited they move forward; if anxious, feeling threatened, or unwell, they may be pinned back; while when content, they relax out to the sides.

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2. The tips of the tongue

Your cat’s tongue is a marvel of design. As well as helping him to taste, eat, and drink, it is a grooming tool. The surface is covered with hundreds of tiny backward-facing spines called papillae and made of keratin — the same stuff as claws and fur are made of. These little spines are scoop-shaped with hollow tips which absorb saliva. When your cat grooms himself, not only do they act like a natural hairbrush, they distribute the saliva through the coat right down to the skin, helping to cleanse the fur and to reduce body temperature on warm days. Cats spend nearly a third of their waking time grooming. Although that isn’t quite as long as you might think, since on average they spend around 70 per cent of their lives sleeping.

3. How cats purr

For many years, no-one knew how a cat purred. It’s only fairly recently that scientists have determined that the noise comes from the muscles within the larynx. As they move, they dilate, constricting the glottis (the part of the larynx surrounding the vocal chords) causing the air to vibrate each time the cat breathes in or out. But just as a dog wagging its tail is not always expressing friendliness, so a purring cat is not always a happy one. Although it is most often to do with contentment, it can also be an indication of nervousness, fear, or stress.

But the really incredible thing about your cat’s purr is that it’s thought that it has a healing action. Purrs at a frequency of 25 — 100Hz correspond to healing frequencies used in therapeutic medicine for bone and soft tissues. And of course, the purring as you pet your cat has a wonderfully therapeutic effect for you too, significantly reducing stress levels. One study even found that cat owners had their risk of a stroke or heart attack reduced by 40 per cent.

4. Message scent

With smell being such an important sense for cats, it’s perhaps not surprising that they use scent as a way of marking territory — a kind of feline graffiti. But it’s not just all about laying claim to their own turf. Scent is also used to learn about unfamiliar cats, announce reproductive status, self-soothe, create familiarity, and can even be a bonding gesture.

Scent is deposited from glands on paw pads, cheeks, lips, forehead, and tail, as well as from two anal glands which mark stools as they pass through, and of course there’s the smell from urine. Scents released from your cat’s rear end, such as when spraying, are long-lasting and high-intensity, done under stressful or exciting circumstances. On the other hand, the scent glands around the face are friendly or low-intensity. When your cat rubs his cheeks against you, and objects in his home, it is often a comforting behaviour demonstrating his feelings of security and familiarity, as well as ownership.

5. Supple spine

Cats have some of the most flexible spines in the animal kingdom. Comprising around 53 loosely fitting vertebrae (humans only have 33, some of which are fused), it allows them to curl up into tight balls, squeeze into tight spaces, and twist an astonishing 180 degrees in mid-air during the righting reflex (the ability to orient himself as he falls so he lands on his feet). This flexibility also enables them to dramatically arch their backs while running, allowing them to cover three times their body length with each stride.

6. Perfect paws

Your cat’s soft velvety paw pads ensure that he can walk silently while stalking his prey. As he walks, his back paws step almost exactly into the same place as the front paws, which also helps keep noise down and limits any visible tracks he leaves. Also aiding stealth is his ability to retract his claws, only extending them when needed.

While his claws are an asset in helping him climb trees, when it comes to getting down again, it can be a different matter. If he tries to come down face first, those claws that helped him on the way up are now facing the wrong way and can’t help to anchor him. In order to descend safely, he has to come down backwards, tail end first. It’s not as easy as it sounds and often makes for a slow, anxious return to the ground. Some cats naturally seem to work it out, but not all do, or they may be afraid to try it, which is why some get stuck in trees and have to be rescued.

Three species of forest dwelling wildcats have, however, cracked the problem. Margay, Clouded leopards, and Marbled cats have evolved the ability to rotate their rear ankles 180 degrees so that like squirrels, coming down head first isn’t an issue.

7. Animal athletes

Cats are supreme athletes! While the cheetah may hold the world record for being the fastest land animal, able to clock up speeds of up to 75mph (120kph), a domestic kitty is no slouch either. Of course, some are speedier than others. Athletic breeds such as the Bengal and Egyptian Mau are natural born sprinters and can achieve speeds of up to 30mph (48kph). And that’s not all, a cat can jump up to 5 — 6 times its own height in a single bound.

8. Unique nose

Your cat has a highly developed sense of smell and like his whiskers, he has possessed it since birth! Each kitten can not only distinguish the smell of their mother but can locate the nipple by scent. Most even have a preferred nipple to nurse on.

A cat’s sense of smell is comparable with that of many dogs, with around 200 million scent receptors in the nasal cavity, compared to a paltry five million for humans. Because cats don’t have many taste buds, it means that smell is more important than flavour when it comes to dinner time. What’s more, that cute little button nose is also completely unique to your kitty, with its own pattern of bumps and ridges; just like human fingerprints, no two are the same.

9. Amazing ears

While humans have a mere six ear muscles controlling the outer ear, your cat has an amazing 32 muscles which enable him to independently move his ears 180 degrees in opposite directions. This makes it possible for him to hear sounds all round his head without having to move it (very useful for a hunter), as well as to accurately pinpoint the location of a noise.

10. Cats eyes

As a nocturnal predator, your cat needs to make the most of all available light. One of the features of his eyes which helps to do this is the Tapetum lucidum, a specialised layer of cells which act like a mirror, reflecting light back on to the retina and increasing night vision.

You can see this if you take a photo of your cat using a flash, or catch him in a beam of torchlight at night — it almost appears as if his eyes are spookily glowing in the dark. It is this property which led to the invention in 1934 by Yorkshireman Percy Shaw of the reflective road studs often referred to as ‘cats eyes.’ His inspiration came while driving around a tight bend on an unlit road one night — his headlights were reflected back at him by the eyes of a cat sitting on a fence, which supposedly saved his life. If it hadn’t been there, he would have veered off the road and down a steep drop.

Did you know?

  • The first photographs to show the cat righting reflex in action were taken by French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey in 1894.
  • When a cat chases its prey, its head stays level, unlike a dog’s which bobs up and down
  • Like us, cats can detect salty, sour, bitter, and umami tastes but unlike humans, they can’t taste sweet things. They do, however, have an extra sense of taste which we lack, of adensine phosphate (ATP), a compound found in meat.
  • The record for the loudest purr is 67.8 decibels — that’s louder than a dishwasher and nearly as loud as a vacuum! Most cats purr at around 25dB.
  • Although some kitties go mad for it, around half the world’s cats don’t respond to catnip; sensitivity to the aromatic herb is hereditary.
  • Your cat’s acuity of hearing is pretty good too. When staff in a Dutch embassy in Moscow noticed that the resident cats kept meowing and clawing at the walls, they assumed it was a mouse problem. But when they investigated, it turned out that the cats were hearing microphones hidden by spies being turned on.