Touch - The Senses

The whiskers of pedigree cats, like those of fashionable young men, are nowadays mere vanities. These specializes hairs do, however, have a function in enhancing the cat's sense of touch, although how they do so is not fully understood.

The sense of touch is highly developed in our fireside friend. The function of cat's whiskers, however, is not fully understood. They obviously have something to do with touch, and removing them can distinctly disturb a cat for some time. There is no substance in the belief that a cat's whiskers protrude on each side to a distance equal to that of the animal's maximum width, so enabling it to gauge whether or without touching anything or making a give-away noise when stalking prey.

But in the dark, a cat's whiskers are immensely sensitive and rapid-acting antennae. Their owner users them to identify things that it cannot see. Scientists have suggested that if a cat's whiskers touch a mouse in the dark, the cat reacts with the speed and precision of a mouse-trap. Other scientists speculate that the cat may bend some or all of its whiskers downwards when jumping or bounding over the ground at night. Certainly the little desert jerboa uses two of its whiskers to do this - its downward-pointing whiskers are used to detect stones, holes or other irregularities in the animal's path. Even when the jerboa is going at full speed, it can take avoiding action, while in the air or on the ground, by changing the direction of its body on a split second. Maybe cats use their whiskers in some similar way.

Reaction To Tremors

Apart from touch, cats are highly sensitive to vibrations. Like some other species, they may give warning of a coming earthquake. There were widespread reports of strange behaviour by house cats in the ten to fifteen minutes preceding the disasters at Agadir, Skopje, Chile and Alaska in the 1960s. It seems the animals can detect the first tremors, which are imperceptible to human beings. Peasants on the slopes of Mount Etna keep cats as early warning devices. When a drowsing tom ups and makes for the door hell-for-leather for no apparent reason, the human occupants follow hot-foot.

This hyper-sensitivity to vibration is probably allied to the widely held belief that cats are capable of extra-sensory perception, and that they can pick up "vibrations" of a kind not detected by the five normal senses. It is in fact impossible to day whether or not cats are "psychic" in this way, although it is easy to guess why they have gained this reputation.

The acuteness of the feline senses allows the animals to react to occurrences of which the relatively blunt-edged human brain is unaware. This fact, couped with the inscrutable "knowing" look of its features, no doubt played a large part in the growth of the belief that a cat possesses a supernatural dimension and communicates with strange forces, which many still believe is so today.