Fat acceptance vs. averages

Maine Coons can be even larger, averaging nine to twenty-two pounds—again, many of them lean toward the heavier end. The “generic” American cat, the American Shorthair, averages from eight to fifteen.

On the lighter side (literally), the short-legged Munchkins average five to nine pounds, but lightest of all is probably the quiet little Singapura, averaging from four to nine pounds. Not even the Ragdolls are anywhere near the record set by Himmy, an Australian tabby who died in 1986. Hefty Himmy weighed almost forty-seven pounds.

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Three types of hair

Whether short or long, a cat’s coat, or fur, is of great appeal to humans, especially those of us who like to touch. Nature made cats touchable but also provided them with three different types of hair to protect them against the elements. The longest are the guard hairs, which form the topcoat, along with the shorter, bristly awn hairs.

Underneath these is the undercoat, which insulates and is composed of short, soft down hairs. (Some hot-climate breeds, such as the Siamese, lack down hair, while cold-climate breeds, like the Maine Coons, have thicker down.) A cat’s skin, like human skin, has erector muscles that raise or lower the hairs in response to emotions or temperature.

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Nose leather

Cats are almost entirely covered with hair. One of the few bare areas is the end of the nose, which is known as the leather. Kept damp by secretions from the nostrils, the leather is highly sensitive to touch.

The cat version of “kissing” a human, or another cat, is to touch her nose leather to the other’s nose. Interestingly, the nose is the only part of a cat’s skin that has no sweat glands.

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True and false vocalists

Both you and your cat possess a larynx, also known as the voice box, at the opening to the windpipe. Vocal chords, made up of cartilage, produce the “voice” of the cat. Veterinarians distinguish between the “true” vocal chords—those that produce meowing, crying and growling—and the “false” vocal chords—those that produce (you guessed it!) purring.

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Global position systems

Automobile makers tout their sophisticated global positioning systems (GPS) in vehicles, but GPS is nothing new in nature. For centuries birds have migrated huge distances, and cats, dogs, horses and other animals somehow find their way home, without depending on computer technology.

Chalk some of it up to sensitive vision, hearing and smell, but also to some mysterious natural forces we barely understand, such as their perception of magnetic fields, reactions to the slant of the sun’s rays and other phenomena.

These senses have delighted pet owners who had given up their pets as hopelessly lost, but whose pets somehow managed to come home again. The flip side: a cruel owner who carries his pet off and abandons it is often dismayed to find the pet back on his doorstep in a few days. (Serves him right!)

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fancy scientific terms: digitigrade describes animals that walk on their toes, while plantigrade refers to those that walk on the whole foot. Bears are plantigrade animals (so are humans, usually) whereas cats are digitigrade. Generally, digitigrade animals can run faster than animals that put their whole paw, foot or hoof on the ground.

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The no-slip grip

Cats, like humans, have sebaceous glands in their skin that secrete sebum, a fatty substance that gives hair its sheen and also provides a water-repellant covering to the skin. The one area totally lacking in sebum are the pads of the paws, which explains why a cat’s paw pads always feel dry. It also explains why the pads are such excellent grippers—they’re oil-free!

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Pad vibes

The pads on a cat’s paws make excellent grippers, which your cat proves through her agile climbing. But the pads are also sensitive as all get-out, sensing vibrations and other movements on whatever surface the cat touches.

The cat’s pads feel slight movements that would not be perceptible to the human palm or sole, and they alert the cat to be aware of where she’s walking—or, better, turn around and flee.

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No clipping here!

Whiskers are part of the total look of the cat, and most cat owners like them. But occasionally an owner will notice a wild hair (pun intended) and decide to trim the cat’s whiskers, the same way we trim our own whiskers and eyebrows. No permanent harm is done since they do grow back.

However, trimming whiskers should be avoided because they are the cat’s “antennas”—her sensitive feelers of the world around her—and are especially needed in the dark. There is even a kind of “whisker reflex”: in the dark, if something brushes against the cat’s eyebrow whiskers, she will shut her eyes immediately to protect them.

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Flexible whiskers


The long upper-lip whiskers are called mystacials, and the muscles under them can move the bottom and top rows of hairs independently. The short whiskers on the lower jaw are called mandibulars.

The whiskers on the cheeks are called genals, and the antennalike whiskers above the eyes are known as superciliaries. Quite apart from the face, each front leg has backward-pointing hairs that serve the same function as the head whiskers. All of them are, of course, supersensitive touch receptors.

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Alas, they’re called “canines”

We’re referring to the most noticeable teeth in the cat’s mouth—the “fangs,” two on the top, two on the bottom. Biologists referred to these sharp, prominent teeth as “canines,” regardless of what animal has them (including humans).

They are the “rippers” in the cat’s mouth that not only do the serious business of tearing large bits of food, but also do the equally serious work of biting an attacker. As in most animals, the cat’s canines are pointed slightly inward, so whatever they fasten to—food or enemy—finds it difficult to escape.

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No sweet tooth here

The cat tongue, like the human tongue, can taste four general categories: saltiness, sweetness, sourness and bitterness. Cats’ favorite tastes are salty and/or sour, and they definitely do not share humans’ (or dogs’) love of sweet things. But there are curious exceptions to every rule.

In spite of being carnivorous, and in spite of what was just said about sweet foods, some cats like sweet tastes, especially floury sweet objects like cookies. (Note that cookies and other sweet treats like pastries do have fat in them, and it’s likely that the fat is the draw, not the sugar.)

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Grate tongue

pink tongue could feel so abrasive, like a pliant file on the skin.

Under a microscope, the tongue’s surface is far from flat, but has “barbs,” called papillae, which are slanted toward the back of the cat’s throat. These barbs are multi-functional: they help lap up water and food, “polish” the coat, clean off helpless kittens. The rough tongue even has a function in defense and hunting, for those barbs cause the wounds of the prey to bleed more profusely.

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Do the external ears really help?

hearing. Do the external ears really help that much, or is their sensitive hearing all a matter of internal sensors?

As with human ears, cats’ external ears play a large role in hearing—in fact, a larger role than human ears, since cats are able to turn their ears more than humans can. Humans who have had their external ears removed do not go deaf, but their hearing does suffer, and this is true for cats as well. The external ears are extremely useful “funnels” for sound.

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Ear range

Recall that an octave is the range of sounds, higher or lower, from one musical note to the next corresponding note—say, from C to the next higher or lower C. The normal human ear can detect sounds over a range of about 8.5 octaves.

Cats, as you might expect, have a wider range, about 10 octaves. Specifically, they are good at sensing higher pitched sounds than humans—such as the faint and high-pitched calls of kittens or rodents. In scientific terms, cats have an upper hearing range of 65 kilohertz.

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amber, and you’ll usually find it among white cats.

It’s a genetic oddity that is little understood. Some people find it unpleasant to look at on first glance, but owners of these “bi-eyed” cats claim that the distinctive look does grow on you after a while. (And considering that these cats are usually white, it does add an extra dash of color.)

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Nictitate = wink

Your cat possesses one more eyelid (per eye) than you do. This is the haw eyelid, or nictitating membrane. (The verb nictitate means “to wink.”) The haw eyelid shuts horizontally (like a drapery being closed sideways across a window) instead of vertically (like a window shade drawn up and down), and is an extra layer of protection for the cat’s eye. Many other animals have them; humans don’t.

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A soft-focus world

vision is superior to ours. Their amazing ability to sense motion (obviously something that would be highly useful to a predator seeking prey) is one example. Apart from their poor sense of color, however, cats also are not very good at distinguishing sharp details.

You might say they see the whole world in “soft focus.” The large lens in the cat eye is useful for gathering lots of light but is not so useful for seeing detail. Cats could not “read the fine print” even if they had the mental capacity to read.

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Focusing on details

Cats amaze people with their ability to focus in on some tiny object—say, a gnat or a tiny lizard crawling on the fence. The retina of a cat’s eye contains the area centralis, a heavy concentration of cone cells, and thus the most sensitive area within the entire eye. When your cat “locks in” on something small that had escaped your attention, you can be sure that that object is right in the center of the cat’s area centralis.

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Can they see in color?

eyes have two types of sensory cells: rods sense shape and cones sense color. (The old memory trick for sorting out which is which is to remember that cones and color begin with the same letter.)

Cats do have cones in their eyes, two different types, in fact, one for blue and one for green. That doesn’t exactly give them a full-color view of the world, but it does mean that they do have some sense of color.

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Cat alarms?

burning house with no thought for us. We tend to assume that the only threat to a burglar would be that he might trip over the cat in the dark. Dogs, so people assume, are the “hero pets,” warning their owners of fire or other dangers.

But in fact there are true stories of cats waking up their owners when the house was on fire or raising a ruckus when someone was breaking into the house. There are even cases of cats saving the lives of people (or other cats) who were being attacked by vicious dogs. Yes, cats do seem to be selfish creatures, but they do have their noble moments.

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