The Guide to a Cat’s Anatomy – The Body Language of a Cat

A Guide to a Cat's AnatomyWe think cats are the most beautifully created and finely honed creatures on the planet! Every part of their head, body and feet has amazing and intricate features that define their feline instincts, movements and senses and also gives communication and signals to other cats and humans. There are also many sayings associated with the anatomy of a cat, such as `The cats’ whiskers’, and `Cats eyes’.

Here is a guide to a cat’s anatomy and their amazing and special cat characteristics and features.

1.            Cats ears

Ears not only help with their hunting and defending instincts, a cat’s ears will also express the mood that they are in. When a kitten is born, its ears are sealed shut, and the ears open at two weeks old. A cat needs acute hearing to hear danger approaching. Cats’ ears will turn and twist independently to each other and a cats’ hearing is always on – like turning radar – even when they are asleep. This is to keep alert of impending danger and to locate and listen for danger at all times. When your cat is asleep and you enter a room, you will see your cat’s ears turn and locate you even if they appear to be asleep. You can find out more in our guide about the signals that cats’ ears give.

2.            Cats eyes

Cats’ eyes are amazing and are 6 times more powerful than human eyes.  They not only glow in the dark, but the pupils can resize perfectly according to the amount of light available.

Cats’ eyes glow in the dark because they have a light-reflecting layer behind the retina which acts as a mirror and reflects light back to the cells in the retina. This layer is called the `tapetum lucidum.’ Cats will therefore be able to see in semi-darkness and dark conditions.

Cats can also control the amount of light that they let into their eyes by reducing and enlarging their pupil size. In bright light and sunlight, they can reduce their pupils to vertical slits rather than small circles, like us humans, which allows them to finitely control and reduce the amount of light by closing their eyelids over the vertical slits. This tiny adjustment can further reduce the amount of light to a finite amount of light as needed.

Direct eye contact to a cat is a sign of aggression. You will also see your cat blink at you very slowly. This is a greeting to family members. When your cat is watching you, do a slow blink to him and see if he blinks back with a greeting!

Did you every wonder why a cat will go up to a person who doesn’t like cats? If a cat saunters into a room, say at a social gathering, the people that are cat lovers will notice, admire and stare at the cat. The person who doesn’t like cats will ignore it and not look at it wanting it to away.  To the cat,  the eye contact made by the cat lovers is threatening to him. Because the person who doesn’t like cats is not making direct eye contact, to the cat in cat language they are signalling that they are being polite and they pose no threat, so the cat will naturally head straight for them to socialise with them. Now we all get it!

If you ever wondered why your cat doesn’t always see what you put down closely in front of him, it is because cats are better suited to long sightedness which helps their hunting.

Cats are partly colour blind and can only see blues and yellows. Red and green colours appear grey to them. Cats can see things that are invisible to humans because they have ultra violet vision on their spectrum. They can see in ultra violet light because some prey animals leave ultra violet in their urine which a cat will be able to see and be aware of. Animal and plant markings will also appear bolder to them compared to our sight.

3.            Cats’ whiskers

Cats’ whiskers are also amazing and intricately balanced. Cats have whiskers on the front of their legs, above their eyes and on their cheeks and muzzle. Cats’ whiskers are flexible, long and stiff and are located deep in the skin with nerve endings at the base. Cats’ whiskers are essential to navigate and are a form of antennae that help them to navigate. With their whiskers, they can sense the position of trees and things around them. A blind cat will be able to sense objects, trees and furniture and navigate using their whiskers, including jumping off tables, chairs and onto trees.

Cats’ whiskers can also sense the slightest vibration or contact and can measure spaces and openings as well as detect minute changes in air pressure and wind shifts similar to a barometer. This is why most cats will come into the home or find cover before a storm, because they can sense it before we can.

Kittens will use their whiskers to find somewhere safe, especially when they are first born with their eyes shut for approximately a week. Kittens’ and cats’ whiskers are essential for judging the space that they are able to fit into as their whiskers are just longer than the width of their head which is the widest part of their body.

Whiskers, like the ears and tail, are also a form of communication and can give signals to us humans. A curious cat will move its whiskers forward. A happy cat will have whiskers that are extended outward and a frightened or agitated cat will pull its whiskers back and down against its cheeks, as if to protect them. Whiskers also protect the cat’s eyes from injury. If anything touches the cats’ whiskers, its reflex is to shut his eyes instinctively.

4.            Cats’ teeth

Cats’ teeth are killing implements and made for perfect hunting. Cats have long canine teeth that they will sink into their prey to incapacitate it.

Kittens are born with no teeth initially and then around 3-6 weeks they start growing their 23 baby milk teeth which are small and translucent.  These milk teeth are then replaced with adult teeth which can be between 11-30 weeks of age. Kittens will chew on various objects including toys and shoes to help with the discomfort during the teething process. They usually have their full set of 30 teeth by the age of around 9 months.

However, if a kitten does not lose their milk teeth they will develop a condition called retained deciduous teeth which is usually when the canine teeth are retained. If this happens, the retained teeth must be removed to prevent problems and pain to the cat. The removal of the retained teeth allows the adult teeth to grow properly and prevents breakage or infection of the more delicate milk teeth.

5.            When cats’ teeth chatter

You may have observed your cat looking at a bird out of the window and chattering its teeth and shuddering its jaw in a very fast motion. A cat will do this because it is performing its highly skilful and specialised killing bite reserved for prey. This type of motion is called a `vacuum activity’. Occasionally your cat may also make a slight whining or high pitched miaowing noise when chattering his teeth and eyeing his prey. A cat will watch a bird – its potential prey – and enact how it would typically kill the prey by biting it after catching it with its claws.

6.            Cats’ tongues

Have you been licked by your cat and wondered why it feels like rough sandpaper? Well the reason is because your cat’s tongue has hundreds of tiny keratin barbs which are located along the centre of the cat’s tongue and face backwards.  These barbs help the cat to hold the prey in its mouth as they grip in a backwards fashion and also help to take the meat off prey easily. The barbs will also thoroughly comb and clean their fur when they groom.

7.            Cats’ tails

Cats’ tails are another part of their amazing and intricate anatomy. Their tail is a stabilising device which helps them to balance on narrow surfaces and also helps them to leap up. When a cat balances on a narrow ledge, it will use its tail – swinging sideways – to balance himself.

When a cat wags his tail from side to side, or in a circular motion, it is a social signal of his state of conflict and indecision which he needs to resolve. A tail-wagging cat is NOT an angry cat, more a kitty in conflict emotionally. When it thinks about the conflict and takes an action to resolve the conflict, then the tail wagging will stop. It may also be a sign of frustration. Of course every cat is different so you will learn to read their signals. If you are petting your cat and his tail starts to flick from side to side and he jumps off, then he has had quite enough petting and stroking and wants to be left alone!

Your cat’s tail is also a good signal to his feelings. A high vertical tail is a sign of a very happy, confident and comfortable cat who likes where they are and who they are with.  If a cat is in confrontation the tail will be held much lower.

10.          Cats’ feet and paws

Cats’ paws are very delicate and have thousands of nerve endings on the paw pads and between the toes. Cats walk on their tip-toes to feel the temperature and texture of the ground. You may notice that your cats don’t like rough, stony surfaces and don’t like their paws to be touched. This is because their pads are so sensitive.

There are scent glands located on the underside of the cats’ front paws which squeeze scent onto objects as part of scent marking their territory, inside and outside of the home. More information here about scenting territory and a cat’s territory marking.

11.          Cats’ claws

Cats claws are retractable because otherwise cats would catch their claws when they walk on carpets, leaves, twigs etc. They will get their claws out as and when they need them. Cats’ claws are vital for catching their prey in the wild. They will first pounce upon their prey and sink their claws into the flesh followed by biting down with their scissor-action bite.  Cats also use their claws to climb trees (and furniture!) and also to scratch and claw on vertical fixtures and furniture to put their scent marks down and to show their presence to other cats. Scratching also helps to alleviate stress and calm themselves which is why it is always important to have a scratching post available for your kitty.

Never ever declaw a cat. This is a painful and horrific practice and the cat suffers terribly. Their claws have a pink part (called the quick) inside the base of the nail. This is the sensitive tissue that contains the vessels and nerves. Declawing a cat is like taking out your fingernails and should never, ever be carried out. The cat will also not be a whole cat without its claws, it’s like a disablement of their anatomy.

 12.         Cats’ fur

A cat’s fur will keep a cat warm in cold weather with a layer of very effective insulation; however a cat’s fur will also act as a way to keep cool in hotter weather. Similarly, grooming acts as a thermostat to regulate body temperature and the heat. A cat does not have sweat glands like humans and are not able to sweat. They keep cool by grooming their fur and the saliva deposited on the fur through grooming is evaporated from the fur like sweat from the skin. When it is cold, you cat will groom his fur to smooth down the layers and make the fur an effective insulation layer as ruffled fur provides poor insulation and warmth.

Sunlight on a cat’s fur will also produce essential Vitamin D. The cat will groom more in sunlight so that they can absorb Vitamin D on their tongues by licking their fur in the sunlight.

When cats’ fur gets wet in the rain, take a good look at how the rain and water behaves on the fur. You will see that a cat’s fur will usually not get soaked through. The water will sit on top of the fur on the top part of the coat which is waterproof to a degree. A cat’s fur is not 100% waterproof but will help to keep water from entering the dry, insulated fur layer that is closer to the skin keeping your kitty dry and warm. When you cats licks and tugs at his coat, he is stimulating the glands at the base of the fur to release a secretion that will help to keep his coat waterproof.

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