Cats are extraordinary creatures and those of us that share our lives with felines will be aware of just how acute their senses can be. They can sniff out food, spot the tiniest movement, and feel their way through the narrowest of spaces. Cats can sense many things, often much better than we can, but can they sense danger?
Cats have a highly specialized sense of smell, excellent vision, and very sensitive hearing, which helps them quickly detect changes in their surroundings. Cats can also sense vibrations in the ground through their paw pads and detect atmospheric pressure changes with their whiskers. Due their heightened senses, cats are often in a state of hyper-vigilance, on the lookout for potential threats.
Cats have a highly specialized sense of smell, excellent vision, and very sensitive hearing, which helps them quickly detect changes in their surroundings.
Cats can also sense vibrations in the ground through their paw pads and detect atmospheric pressure changes with their whiskers.
Due their heightened senses, cats are often in a state of hyper-vigilance, on the lookout for potential threats.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that cats have a sixth sense, this common misconception probably arises because cats have much sharper senses than we do. Read on to learn about the different ways in which your cat is able to sense danger.
Cats have excellent vision, particularly in dim lighting. In fact, cats can see six times better in dim light than humans can. One of the reasons for this is that cats have larger numbers of rod cells within their eyes than we do.
Rods are a type of photoreceptor cell that are sensitive to light, meaning that your cat can detect more outlines and movements in low lighting than you can. A cat’s pupils can also dilate wider than a human’s, which allows more light to enter the eye.
The Tapetum Lucidum
Cats have a structure within their eye that we do not have, called the tapetum lucidum. When light enters the eye, some of it hits the retina where the photoreceptor cells (rods and cones) are. When this happens, the information is processed by the brain and a visual picture is formed.
However, some of the light misses the retina, instead passing through or around the retina where it hits the tapetum lucidum. This acts as a tiny mirror and reflects light back through the retina, giving it a second chance at hitting the rod cells and allowing it to be processed by the brain. This is yet another reason why your cat can see better in dim lighting than you can.
Also Read: When Do Kittens Open Their Eyes?
A cat’s sense of smell is far superior to ours and that cute little nose contains far more scent receptors than our much larger noses do. The inside lining of a cat’s nose (called the olfactory epithelium) is approximately 20 centimeters squared. By comparison, a human’s olfactory epithelium is just 4 centimeters squared.
Cats are also far better at distinguishing between different smells than humans, and even dogs, are. The receptor in the nose that is responsible for differentiating between scents is called the V1R receptor.
Cats have 30 V1R receptors whereas dogs have nine and humans only have two. This allows cats to identify and differentiate between a much wider variety of smells. Unlike humans, cats can even smell pheromones.
The Vomeronasal Organ
Cats have yet another advantage over humans when it comes to smell. They have the ability to not only detect smells using their noses but also their mouths. The vomeronasal organ (also called the Jacobson’s organ) sits just behind a cat’s upper incisors on the roof of its mouth. A cat uses this to detect pheromones (chemical messengers) from other cats, as well as other animals, including you.
You might have seen your cat standing with their mouth partially open when they are using their vomeronasal organ to detect pheromones in the air. They might also curl their upper lip to pass as many scent particles as they can over the vomeronasal organ. This type of lip-curling is termed the flehmen response.
Also Read: How To Mask The Cat Smell In Your Home
Yet another thing that cats do better than humans is hear a wider range and volume of sounds. Cats are extremely sensitive to sound and they can also hear better than most dogs can. They are able to rotate their ears up to 180 degrees which enables them to better locate the direction and position of a sound. Most humans cannot move their ears at all, although a few have the ability to wiggle them marginally.
There are 32 muscles in a cat’s ear that gives them the ability to move each ear backward, forward, and side to side, often completely independently of the other ear! Humans only have nine ear muscles so it’s no surprise that a cat’s ears are so mobile by comparison.
Cats can also detect frequencies well outside the range that humans can. The hearing range of cats is around 48 hertz to 85,000 hertz. Compare that to the human range of 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz and it’s understandable that sometimes your cat looks as though they have heard something even though you believe it to be silent.
Also Read: New Research Proves Owning A Cat Is Good For Your Heart
Cats have the ability to detect tiny vibrations in the ground through their paw pads. Those little toe beans might look adorable but they also have an important function. A cat’s paw pads contain nerve endings called Pacinian corpuscles, which enable them to detect vibration frequencies between 80 and 240 hertz.
It has been suggested that cats can sense natural disasters such as earthquakes before they happen and there could be some truth in this. There is anecdotal evidence that cats start behaving oddly just before an earthquake. More research is needed to determine whether or not cats really are picking up tiny vibrations through the ground before an earthquake starts.
Also Read: 10 Interesting Facts About Cat Paws You May Not Have Known
This is the one sense where human ability is superior to that of a cat. A cat’s sense of taste is nowhere near as good as a human’s. Cats have around 470 taste buds whereas humans have around 9,000. It is thought that cats lack the ability to taste sweet things.
However, a cat’s ability to taste bitter or sour things is excellent, something that helps them to avoid ingesting toxins or poisons that are often bitter-tasting.
Also Read: 10 Little-Known Facts About Your Cat’s Tongue
6. Changes In Air Pressure
Cats’ whiskers (vibrissae) are extremely sensitive to not only touch but also changes in the environment, such as wind direction. They can even detect even small changes in air pressure and the atmosphere around them. The nerve endings at the tips of the whiskers then transmit this information to the brain where it is processed.
You might have seen your cat behaving strangely or vocalizing just before a storm. This is because they can sense the storm is coming before you can, thanks to their sensitive whiskers.
Also Read: Why Do Cats Have Whiskers?
7. Fight Or Flight
With all of those heightened senses, it’s no wonder that cats are always on high alert. Cats are ready to react to a perceived threat and because of this, they sometimes get spooked by things that are actually harmless. Cat owners will be familiar with the sight of their cat springing into mid-air after a sudden loud noise and running for cover.
If a cat senses that a dangerous predator is nearby, they might prepare themselves to fight. Their body language will change to a defensive posture, usually crouched low to the ground with their hackles raised and claws at the ready. This fight or flight response aims to minimize the danger in the quickest and most efficient way possible.
Also Read: Are My Cats Playing Or Fighting?
Cats have a simply incredible sense of smell, sight, and sound, all of which are far superior to a human. This means that they are acutely aware of any potential danger, long before you will be. Their highly specialized senses make them skilled predators, but cats can also be prey to other, larger mammals.
This means that cats are often in a state of hyper-vigilance, on the lookout for not only prey but potential threats too. Danger to cats can come in all forms, from a bad weather system to another predator animal, but either way, cats can definitely sense danger in more ways than one.
Also Read: What To Do If Your Cat Chews On Everything
Frequently Asked Questions
Can cats sense when something is wrong?
Cats have senses that are far superior to ours, including a highly specialized sense of smell, excellent vision, and very sensitive hearing. This means that they can detect changes in their environment quickly and in ways that you cannot. If something is wrong, chances are your cat will pick up on it before you do.
Can cats sense an intruder?
Cats can hear, see, and smell much better than we humans can. This means that they could potentially "sense" an intruder before you know that they’re there.
Does my cat protect me when I sleep?
Cats are more likely to sleep with you because they trust you to protect them should the need arise. Your cat knows that you are not a danger and could provide an extra defense if needed.
Does my cat see things that aren’t there?
Cats have much better vision than humans and can detect even the smallest of movements. They are particularly adept at seeing in low light levels—their vision in dim light is six times better than a human’s. Your cat is probably just seeing something that you can’t, such as dust bunnies.
Shreve, K.R.V (2017). Stress, security and scent: The influence of chemical signals on the social lives of domestic cats and implications for applied settings. Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 187. Retrieved November 1, 2022
Thank you for your extremely informative article on cat behavior. I have the most precious, beautiful Siberian kitten to wich I have displayed lots of love, gentileness and affection long with anabundace of toys and hiding places. She does not like shoes, but soft slippers are accepted. She does not like to even see my hands and so will not allow me to pet her. She follows me and my husband everywhre and will approach us for food but turns aggressive as we approach her for petting.
She will hiss, scratch and bite at our touch. Even just wind on her fur panics her.
Imagine my total surprise when at our first veterinary doctors visit when the vet doctor and assistant was approached with complete love and cuddling even during and after two vaccines. She enjoyed the ride to and from the visit but went back to being unapproachable to me once home. Must be something in the air at the clinic. Will try your recomended sprays.
Thanks for your insight. I sure hope the calming spray works.
Hey Karen, that’s a really interesting question. This does make me wonder if it’s something about your home environment that’s bothering her. Was she affectionate with you on the way to the veterinary hospital? I would try to figure out if it’s you and your husband or the home that is presenting the issue. Perhaps try taking her out a bit more—walks with a harness and leash may help to get out some of that energy and help you to get a better idea of how she behaves outside of the home. Wishing you all the best.