Have you ever got down to the eye level of a toddler and wondered at how different the world looks – at how feet look so huge and adult heads so far away? Take this a little further down to ankle level and look afresh at your home and garden, as this is the angle from which your kitten (unless, of course, it is halfway up the curtains) will see.
However, although a kitten lives in the same physical environment as we do, it may perceive things in a very different way because of its heightened senses of hearing, smell and touch, and may be influenced by factors of which we are only vaguely aware. Remember that your small bundle of fur is, in fact, a developing predator, and that all its senses are highly tuned to ensure frequent success on hunting missions. Below is a brief outline of how the cat sees, hears, smells and feels the world around it – to the best of our limited understanding.
Confidence of movement
Although your kitten may dash about and bump into objects during a skittish five minutes, or may drop to the floor during a frantic rush to the top of the curtains, its athletic abilities give it a poise and balance way beyond the abilities of our own bodies – even the most clumsy cat can make our top human gymnasts look slow and cumbersome.
A fully grown cat can leap to five times its height from a standing start with very little effort, climb a tree, walk without a wobble along the slimmest of fences, and bend and stretch to the envy of any yoga expert. A young kitten will not yet have mastered every trick to perfection, but all that dashing around, jumping in the air and climbing are practice for the time when the grace and speed of its actions will make it one of the most successful hunters in the animal kingdom.
Through feline eyes
The feline eye, although basically similar to that of other mammalian species, does have unique specialities of its own. It is thought that cats can see some color, although their vision is mainly adapted to see well in very poor light and to be very sensitive to movement (because cats hunt mainly at twilight, when most of their rodent prey is on the move, they do not actually need to see in color). Special nerve cells that are located in the cat’s brain respond to the smallest movement, and the cat is then able to pinpoint this movement very accurately. Behind the splendid color of your kitten’s eye (the iris) lies the pupil, with its light-sensitive layer of cells (the retina). A special layer of cells situated behind the retina (the tapetum) reflects back any light that has not been absorbed on its way through, so that the eye is given a second chance to intercept the image. It is this layer of cells – acting in the same way as a mirror – that is reponsible for the remarkable gold or green shine that we can see in a cat’s eyes when they happen to be caught for a moment in a passing car’s headlights.
These special adaptations of the eye, along with the ability to open the pupil very wide, allow your kitten to see perfectly well in what we would term ‘darkness’ – cats cannot in fact see in total darkness, but they can see in light approximately six times dimmer than we ourselves need to find our way about, and in light that sophisticated scientific instruments are barely able to detect.
The twitch of an ear
Your kitten has very mobile ears – they can swivel through 180 degrees, he completely flat against the head or be extremely ‘pricked’, and they can even move in opposite directions at once. Although we tend to think of dogs as our keen-eared friends, the cat is sensitive to sounds of even higher frequency than the dog (a dog hears up to about 35 kHz, a cat to about 65 kHz).
Our ears are sensitive up to about 20kHz and so we miss many of the high-pitched squeaks and sounds made by small rodents, to which the cat is very attuned. Locating prey very accurately by sound means that a cat can move in swiftly, directly and silently, and not have to rely solely on sight to pinpoint its prey’s position until it is close up. There are therefore probably all sorts of high-pitched sounds in your home of which you will be blissfully unaware, but which your kitten will be registering all the time.