The Unique Nature of the Cat

Posted by admin on December 23rd, 2010

Americans currently share their homes with over 77 million cats – a statistic that makes our feline friends the most popular pet in the US! (By comparison, dogs come in a close second at 65 million). And, whether or not you consider yourself to be a “dog person” or a “cat person”, it is true that cats differ distinctively from dogs. It is the cat’s many endearing and unique characteristics that cat lovers appreciate and enjoy!

Are Cats Less Social than Dogs?

The most commonly identified cat trait that is unique is the cat’s alleged “independence”. And it is true – compared with dogs, cats are less social…. in some ways. This is primarily because cats evolved from a wild species of cat called the African wildcat. African wildcats live solitary lives, associating minimally with others for most of their adult life. In most cases, the only interactions that an African wildcat has with others of their own species occur only during the mating season and when females are raising a litter. Otherwise, they live and hunt alone and use rather elaborate behaviors to signal the territory boundaries and ensure that they maintain solitude.

Our domestic cat has inherited some, but not all aspects of this solitary nature. Domestication and selective breeding for several hundred generations has produced our beloved cat – a pet who enjoys the companionship of others and has a more social nature than his wild ancestors. As many owners will agree, cats are often highly affectionate to their human family and at the same time display some of the independent nature of their wild ancestors. Some cats actively seek out the attention and affections of their owners and frequent play and cuddle with the people and pets in their homes. Other cats prefer to have a bit more “personal space” and may enjoy sleeping nearby, but not directly on laps. Interestingly, a primary defining characteristic of our domestic cat today is the cat’s refusal to be defined by one particular behavior type! Happily, this seems to work quite well, as some owners prefer a cat who is cuddly and loving, while others enjoy the demeanor of a more reserved and independent feline companion.

The Cat’s Special Senses

Related to the cat’s unique temperament is the fact that cats perceive the world in a “feline way”. Cats rely principally upon their sensitive hearing, smell and a highly developed ability to detect movement when reacting to their environment. Here are a few of the cat’s exceptional special senses:

• Structure and movement: The cat’s structure and movement reflect its evolution as an efficient hunter. Cats are capable of rapidly changing from a quiet watchful posture to a full-fledged chase and pounce in a matter of seconds. The cat’s front limbs and spine are extremely flexible for climbing and leaping, while the extended hind limbs and their associated muscles are specialized to provide the power needed for chasing and jumping. This flexibility makes for a beautiful animal to watch, but also contributes to the cat’s propensity for jumping up onto counters and sleeping in elevated places!

• Vision: The cat’s eyes and visual acuity convey life as a nocturnal hunter. The cat’s large eyes are set well forward on the head to provide a wide binocular field of vision. The position and shape of the eyes also allows cats to see laterally (to the side) giving them a total range of vision of up to 280 degrees. These visual attributes are needed to locate, chase and capture prey. Visually, cats can detect very minute movements and see well in dim light conditions. Similar to dogs, cats are often said to be “color-blind”. However, the reality is that the cat (and the dog) has “dichromatic” color vision, meaning that cats perceive two primary colors; green and blue (but not red)!

• Olfaction (smell): The cat’s sense of smell is highly developed and sensitive. The nose contains about 200 million scent receptors, slightly less than the number found in dogs, but many more than the 5 million found in the human nose. In addition, like other mammals that rely heavily upon scent, the cat has an additional olfactory organ called the vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of the mouth. Although its exact function is not known, this additional scent gland is involved in sexual behavior and the identification of other cats and people.

• Hearing: Cats are capable of detecting sounds within a very wide range and at very high frequencies. For example, humans can hear up to 20,000 cycles per second (cps), while cats are capable of detecting sounds as high as 60,000 to 80,000 cps! The cat’s large round ear flap aids in both collecting and locating sound waves and the multiple small muscles around the ear allow the cat to rotate the cars up to 180 degrees. The cat’s acute hearing aids in the hunting of rodents and other small prey. It also enables cats to distinguish familiar sounds such as its owner’s footsteps or the sound of the opening of the cat food tin!

• Taste: The organs of taste, specialized papillae that are commonly called “taste buds”, are located on the front and sides of the cat’s tongue and in several locations on the roof and back of the mouth. Cats use both their sense of smell and sense of taste when selecting food and are capable of distinguishing between foods that are salt, bitter and acidic in flavor. In contrast, they have a very limited ability to detect sweet flavors. A cat’s tongue also reacts to temperature – most cats show a preference for consuming foods that are at room temperature, rather than very warm or cold foods.

• Vocalizations: The domestic cat uses vocal communication frequently and is capable of uttering a large range of sounds. Many of the cat’s vocal signals convey different messages depending upon the situation in which they are used. Cat vocalizations can be categorized into three primary types according to how the sound is produced. The three most well-know of these are the purr, meow and hiss:

• The Purr: Cats purr throughout life, starting when they are very young. Purring is an unusual vocalization because it is produced during both inhalations and exhalations. The activation of certain muscles of the throat along with movement of the diaphragm cause air turbulence in the cat’s chest, resulting in the purr sound (and that feeling of a motor running when a cat sits on your lap!). Purring is most commonly associated with pleasure or contentment, but cats will purr in a variety of circumstances. Because it is only observed when cats are in the presence of a human or a known cat, purring is believed to be an important form of social communication in cats.

• The Meow: Cats use the “meow” most typically when they are communicating with their human owners, and much less commonly when interacting with other cats. It is the vocalization that is used during amiable social encounters to establish contact, or to request interaction, play, or food. Individual cats are known to develop an entire set of meows for specific situations when interacting with their owners. For example, a cat may use one meow when asking to be fed and another when demanding to be let out of a room, and still another to solicit petting!

• The Hiss: The cat’s hiss is classified as a strained intensity sound and is emitted with the mouth held open for the duration of the sound. It is primarily a defensive sound, given only when a cat is frightened or is cornered and becoming defensive. (The spit is considered to be a more intense form of the hiss, and is used to deter threats).

The Importance of Place: A Cat’s Territory

A final important trait of cats is their desire to live within a well-defined territory. Cats who are allowed access to the outdoors will establish a home range that includes favorite areas used for sleeping, playing and stalking wildlife (an important reason to keep a bell on your cat’s collar). Cats who live exclusively indoors, on the other hand, establish their territories only within the confines of their home. One of the most important ways in which cats identify their living space and territory is through marking behaviors:

• Rubbing: When cats rub their faces and bodies along furniture (and along their owner’s legs when greeting!) they are depositing their own scent from glands that are located in the face and around the base of the tail. This marking behavior allows the cat to feel secure within his own, well-defined territory and also informs the feline world that the territory is inhabited by a resident cat.

• Scratching: Another cue that is used to mark territory is scratching vertical and horizontal surfaces. Scratch marking leaves a visual cue in the form of scraped material and deposits scent from glands located in the cat’s paws. Scratching also functions to keep a cat’s claws healthy and sharp and is one of the ways in which cats stretch their muscles when they rise after sleeping. Teaching a cat to use an appropriate scratching post helps to prevent the use of furniture or other undesirable areas of the house for this type of natural marking behavior.

• Urine marking: In addition to rubbing and scratching, depositing urine is also a normal method that cats use to mark territory. When eliminating, most cats squat and then immediately cover the urine with dirt or litter. This natural behavior is the reason that cats are so easily trained to use a litter box. Other cats will sniff areas of covered urine, suggesting that urine conveys social and territorial information. A second form of urine marking is spraying. This is separate from urination for elimination purposes and is characterized by depositing small amounts of urine on vertical surfaces. Urine spraying is almost exclusively observed in intact male cats or in cats who are experiencing social stress. Luckily, spraying can be prevented in the majority of cats through proper household management practices, adequate litter box training, and spaying and neutering cats before spraying is an established habit.


Understanding the cat’s nature and ways in which this special animal companion is unique can aid owners in providing proper care and a comfortable and secure living environment for their cat. Appreciating our cats for “who they are” promotes responsible ownership, helps to prevent behavior problems, and enables your cat to be both a cat and your best friend simultaneously!

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