Monday, September 15, 2014

Feline Sense and Scents-ability: Part 3: Touch


Cats have a highly developed sense of touch. Most obviously, they have 24 vibrissae, or whiskers, grouped in 4 sets on each side of the nose. The whiskers on the face are called mystacials and the top rows can move independently from the lower rows. The whiskers above the eyebrows are called superciliary whiskers. There are also whiskers on the backs of a cat’s front legs associated with the accessory carpal gland. All these thick hairs, about 2 times thicker than the rest of a cat’s fur, and rooted 3 times deeper in the skin, are surrounded at the base by bundles of nerve receptors that send messages to a special area of the brain called the barrel cortex. There, the nerve signals create a 3-D map of the spatial environment based on a cat’s touch in a way very similar to the visual cortex’s map of the visual environment.

Cats’ whiskers also help them judge distances – from planning and executing aerial acrobatics to deciding if they will fit through small openings, and they are also a measure of a cat’s mood. Whiskers that are perked forward and spread widely apart communicate that a cat is alert and interested in the environment, possibly aggressive. Whiskers that are relaxed and positioned slightly downward indicate that the cat is feeling passive. Whiskers that are plastered back against the cat’s face indicate anger.

Cats can’t see directly underneath their noses, but they can spread their whiskers forward around their nose to form a “basket” that identifies the location of objects the cat can’t see – such as that tasty treat you just offered her. Subtle changes in air movement that move the whiskers as little as 1/200th the width of a human hair can also help alert cats to prey they can’t see.

Rexes and Sphynx breeds tend to have very short, curly whiskers
Avoid cutting your cat’s whiskers, as they are a valuable part of how a cat “sees” the world. The whiskers of most cats (Rexes and Sphynxes excluded) are as wide as their body, so any opening that they can pass their whiskers through without resistance is an opening they can fit their body through. Cats with trimmed whiskers, or cats that are overweight run the risk of getting stuck.

Interestingly, it seems that many cats prefer to eat off of a flat or very wide, shallow dish instead of a deep, high-sided bowl because the flat dish does not interfere with their whiskers. This seems to be especially true of cats that are not feeling well.

The places on your cat's body that are most touch-sensitive are the face and the front paws. These parts of the body are your cat’s most important hunting tools.

Also, cats tend to develop surface texture preferences for everything – from litter to scratching posts, to beds. Pay careful attention to what your cat tells you – if she is not using the litter box, perhaps she doesn’t like the feel of wheat litter. If she likes to scratch on your nylon duffel bag instead of her carpet-covered scratching post, perhaps a sisal-rope post that has a little rougher texture to it would be a welcome change.

In addition to the ability to sense distance, movement and texture, cats are born with a highly developed sense of temperature sense. In the first 10 to 14 days of a kitten's life, they learn to navigate by differences in temperature. Heat receptors at the tip of a kitten’s nose detects variation in temperature as small as 0.9 degrees F, which helps the sightless infant navigate towards its mother and siblings.

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