Your cat’s senses send messages to her brain and keep her in touch with the world around her.
Your cat’s senses send messages to her brain and keep her in touch with the world around her. Her highly developed sense of touch, which covers her whole body, is one sense that helps her to navigate her surroundings and assists her in the hunt for food.
Touch receptors or touch ‘spots’ are located in many places on your cat’s body. They are connected by a powerful network of nerves. Through this system your cat can stay in constant contact with her environment. The touch receptors on the skin are very sensitive to pressure, pain and changes in temperature. Very sensitive places are found where there are concentrations of nerve cells. The paws and face are both areas of great sensitivity. Certain hairs on your cat’s body also provide the brain with sensory information. The eyebrows and whiskers (called vibrissae), the hairs at the joint of the front legs, and the hairs on the footpads all relay touch messages to the cat’s brain.
The sense of touch is one sense a kitten will almost immediately after birth. Without eyesight, kittens have to rely on their senses to find their mother’s nipple for nourishment. They are not only guided by their sense of smell but also through an amazing ability of the skin at the nose tip to detect small changes in temperature.
Take a good look at your cat’s face. You will see four rows of whiskers on the side of your cat’s nose. Most cats have 24 whiskers that form an essential part of your cat’s sensory arsenal for hunting. Whiskers are thicker than ordinary hairs, are embedded much deeper in the skin and have a concentration of nerve endings at their base. The two top rows are able to move independently from the bottom rows. The whiskers can detect very slight changes in air movements, vibrations and air pressure around them and relay these messages to the cat’s brain. With their help, the cat is able to navigate her way, even in the darkness, and gauge whether she can fit through a space. This means that she can tell just how close she is to an object without having to see it! Your cat’s whiskers can also provide you with clues on her mood. A fearful cat will push her whiskers against her cheeks. If she’s curious about something, she’ll pitch them forward.
Whale of a tail
But what about her tail, you ask? Your cat’s tail isn’t part of her senses as such, but does play an essential role in her well-being and how she interprets the messages her brain receives from her five senses. She’ll also use her tail to convey her mood through body language. The tail helps her to maintain her balance and to land on her feet when she jumps. The tail is made up of tiny bones and is actually an extension of the backbone. Although the tail is very flexible, cats can injure their tails or even break one of the bones. If your cat doesn’t hold her tail high or appears off balance, a bone may well be broken. Also watch for dribbling urine or signs of pain if you touch her tail. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect a broken tail
De-coding tail ‘messages’
- The pencil – when your cat holds her tail straight in the air, she’s comfortable in her surroundings, in charge and happy with life.
- The shake – an essential clue is the speed of the shake. A slight bristle near the top will indicate mild annoyance but a full-tailed shake generally indicates a good mood.
- The swish – this is part of your cat’s innate behaviour and is used by wild cats to unsettle prey and make them bolt. Watch your cat as she stalks a bird and you’ll likely catch the ‘swish’ in action.
- The flip – is a loud message to ‘back off’. If you don’t, you’re bound to get scratched. She’s not in a pleasant mood and is getting more irritated by the minute.
Communicate through touch
Do you want to nurture a closer connection with your cat? Research shows that by petting or stroking your cat, you can tap into her sense of touch for better communication. Wild cats, especially those living in close family groups, may rub their heads together or touch noses. Touch stimulates the family bond and is a sign of affection. You can communicate with your cat using these same techniques. Touching your cat creates not only a physical but also an emotional response. When you touch and stroke your cat, her heart rate will slow down and she will begin to relax as feel-good endorphins are released into her system. Some people also believe that stroking mimics the grooming that tabby cats give to their kittens, which invokes a pleasant memory in older felines. Give your pet extra stroking time and you will see a friendly, more sociable cat begin to emerge.
Massage your way into her heart
Massage is a great way to bond with your feline friend. If your cat jumps up onto your lap, use the opportunity to start a gentle massage. Make sure she is comfortable, and talk to her gently as you begin to stroke her back. Take it slowly and avoid sudden or hard movements. Listen for your cat’s contented purr – it’s a clear indication that she is enjoying the extra attention. You can also use the time to check the general condition of her coat. Massage can bring down your cat’s blood pressure (and yours) and improve circulation. It’s also recommended if your cat’s been ill.
Areas to concentrate on during the massage:
- Behind your cat’s ears
- Her face – including areas under the chin, the sides of her face near her whiskers, and the top of her head
- Stoke her along the spine. If she’ll let you, stroke her tail. Start at the top of the neck and work downwards to the tip of the tail
- Massage each leg, concentrating on the paw as you reach the end of the leg.
- Your cat will let you know if she doesn’t enjoy something, so respect her likes and dislikes. Many cats don’t like a tummy rub or interpret it as playtime. Others don’t like having the backs of their legs touched, especially the backs of their hind legs.
Text: Gina Hartoog
Photography: Johann Theron