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Understanding How Your Cat Experiences the World

by Lauren Samet

Almost one in five British households have a cat, making for an estimated population of around 8 million nationwide.

The experience of owning a cat as a pet has been described as like living with a teenager: independent, sassy and discerning in their tastes, and whilst it’s easy to assume cat ownership is similar to keeping a dog, they are very different species in their evolution as domestic animals.

How cats see the world is completely different to us and to dogs. Attempting to understanding a little more about their perspective can go a long way towards looking after them successfully.

The Evolution of Cats as Pets

The domestic cat Felis catus has evolved (relatively) recently from the North African wildcat F. silvestris lybica and they’ve been cohabiting with humans for approximately 4000 years, compared to the domestic dog’s 10,000. It’s thought that their domestication began in Ancient Egypt, were seen as protectors, helpers, and especially useful for controlling rodents. Relatively speaking, cats have not been domesticated for very long, often explaining a great deal of their behaviours, tastes, likes and dislikes and sometimes thinking like a pet cat is to think like a wild cat!

Cats are highly specialized, obligatory carnivores meaning that they require meat in their diet. This is obvious when viewing their teeth and their innate hunting behaviours in play (stalking, pouncing, etc.). In the wild, cats are solitary animals, which means they hunt smaller prey. This is more manageable for them, but also means that they may need to hunt and eat several times a day, to fulfil their energy requirements. These instincts still exist in domestic cat behaviour, with cats preferring ad lib food access which they can come back to throughout the day, rather than one or two big meals per day. This freedom of choice tends to be a strong theme in successful cat care.

The Feline Senses


Being excellent solitary hunters, cats have evolved a unique sensory perception of the world, which has helped them to survive and dominate as the pets we know today. They have excellent vision in low light (when their prey is most active) thanks to the high density of light detecting photoreceptors in their retinas. However, this means their retinas are home to less of the photoreceptors responsible for colour vision and acuity. Their vision can be slightly blurred at the edges where they are not focussing, and they tend to be red-green colour-blind.

Being hunters, cats’ eyes are positioned at the front of their heads, to allow for excellent depth perception and focus. They have excellent peripheral vision too (approximately 20 degrees wider than ours) so as not to miss the smallest movement of their prey. The pupils of cats can dilate and contract dramatically, for greater ability in their field of vision.  

Despite their advantageous eyesight, cats do have a blind spot under the chins, meaning they can occasionally miss something that’s right underneath their noses.


Cats have exceptional hearing to assist in prey detection, which often too explains their aversion to noisy environments or people. Part of this acuity is due to the dexterity of their ears, being able to move each individually to hone in on a noise. The outer triangular pinna (the external ear we see) are designed to capture sounds waves and funnel them down through the clean ear canal, to the eardrum.

Cats can hear much higher pitched sounds than humans, so they can be tuned into the squeaks and high pitches of their prey. Their hearing range is thought to span approximately between 48-85,000 Hz - much wider than the human range of 64-23,000 Hz. Cats’ hearing can also be damaged in the same way that human hearing can by being exposed to very loud music or other environmental noises.

Did you know? In 2015, a group of researchers published a study detailing their creation of cat-friendly music. The music they designed used the same frequency range and tempos favoured in feline communication. The resulting symphony had the moggy audience rubbing their faces on the speakers in approval!


Cats have four rows of whiskers on the upper side of each lip, which are extremely sensitive to touch. Cats use them to determine the size of space around them, for example, if in low light conditions or when exploring holes and tight spaces. As their sense of touch is extremely important, never cut or trim their whiskers, including those around the eyes, cheeks and other parts of the body.

Cats often scent their territory using touch, rubbing their cheeks and sides along surfaces and objects found in their territory – including their owners!


A cat’s sense of taste is insensitive to sweet tastes, however, they possess taste buds that can respond to amino acids, meat being important to their diet. In terms of palatability, cats prefer foods with higher amounts of protein and some fat, likely in response to taste bud preferences. This is likely due to thousands of years of evolution as obligatory carnivores.


A cat’s sense of smell is very well developed, having around 200 million olfactory receptors which help to chemically analyse and interpret smells (compared to 5 million in humans). Whether your domestic cat hunts for its own food or not, the smell is still important to them in food selection. This is sometimes why cats can be fussy eaters or will sometimes lose their appetite with respiratory tract infections.

Their sense of smell can help a cat determine whose territory they are in; cats mark their territories using urination, spraying and rubbing.


Not strictly a sense, a feline’s sense of balance comes from their inner ear just like it does in humans. Other adaptations which have led cats to famously (mostly)land on their feet includes not having a true collar bone and having a particularly flexible back. These adaptations allow them to twist more easily, to get their feet back underneath them if they fall.

Cats tails are also excellent at keeping them aligned and counterbalancing their body weight, whilst their claws can assist with grip and climbing. Kittens, however, take time to develop their sense of balance and these quick reactions.

Common Cat Behaviours Explained

Cat Napping

It is not unusual for a cat to spend up to 16 hours of its day sleeping!

A Love of Catnip vs. No Response

Did you know that its genetics that determines whether your cat has a reaction to catnip or not? About half of cats will have the gene that makes them go crazy for this plant, also known as catmint, catwort and field balm.

Wagging Tails

Unlike dogs, a cat that is wagging or flicking its tail is often annoyed with a situation or is on the hunt.


There are a few theories on why cats ‘knead’, the most common being it’s a behaviour which comes from their kitten years, kneading their mothers to stimulate milk production. Purring simultaneously is a sure sign your cat is happy, contented and sharing some love. Other theories that might explain kneading include marking their territory (cat’s paws contain scent glands too), a female coming into heat or maybe just helping make a comfortable bed (an ancestral throwback to when wild cats made their beds in grasses and leaves).

Scratching Furniture

Just like tigers, domestic cats scratch their claws on surfaces to sharpen them and mark their territory. It’s a good idea to provide your cat with a scratching post if they are housed indoors to help avoid sofas and paintwork falling victim to this behaviour.


It’s really important that your cat feels safe in its home and has a place to retreat to if it’s feeling stressed or nervous – hiding is how your cat copes with fear. If you know a particularly stressful period is approaching (fireworks night, for example) it’s best to keep your cat indoors. This should avoid them getting spooked and running off to hide, potentially becoming lost. Providing a dark quiet corner for your worried cat, and plenty of pleasant distractions can help relieve some of their anxiety.

Slow Blinking

This behaviour is your cat’s way of saying they feel comfortable, relaxed and trust your company enough to close their eyes. It can even be reciprocated by owners if you wish to slow blink back at them!

Bradshaw, J. W. (2012). The behaviour of the domestic cat. Cabi: London.
Cats Protection (2018) Cats Protection Essential Guide 9: Understanding your Cats Behaviour [online]. Available at: https://www.cats.org.uk/uploads/documents/cat-care-leaflets-2013/EG09_Understanding_your_cat%27s_behaviour.pdf
Heffner, R. S., & Heffner, H. E. (1985). Hearing range of the domestic cat. Hear Res, 19(1), 85-88.
PFMA (2018) Pet Population 2018 [online]. Available at: https://www.pfma.org.uk/pet-population-2018 (accessed December 2018).
Snowdon, C. T., Teie, D., & Savage, M. (2015). Cats prefer species-appropriate music. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 166, 106-111.