The world when you're a cat

This is more of a General Ramble with Questions. I am looking for information on how our good friends (and enemies, depending on leanings) felix domesticus experience their surroundings. Obviously, much of the answer is going to be somewhat conceptual–I’m actually looking to use it in an Interactive Fiction game I’m beginning to write–at one point, the player’s consciousness is going to be operating through a cat. I’m looking both for information on what we know about how their senses differ in capabilities/functioning from our own, and general thoughts and opinions on what the actual qualia generated from them feel like.

This is what I know, or rather, think I know (which category the Straight Dope has been very helpful about correcting me about), about things thus far. Corrections, expansions, links, recommended books, etc., all most welcome.

Sight: cats don’t see much color, because they’ve got a great amount of nightvision. They don’t see with the crispness of detail that people do when things are at rest, but they see motion extremely well.

Smell: much more sensitive than the nearly-blind human sniffer, both in faintness, and in a level of “texture”. not as important to them, though, as a dog’s? Not quite so immensely powerful?

Touch: about what you’d expect. Pads on the feet pretty sensitive to pressure, texture change, finding the right bits to sink claws into when climbing trees. I can only assume that being able to stretch like that feels amazingly good (I envy their spines and jointing every time I see a cat stretch). Whiskers do anything useful?

Hearing: very quick to pick up on directions. otherwise, I’ve no idea. do they hear dog whistles? Lower frequencies extending below human range?

Taste: even less of an idea. highly qualitative, obviously, as they can cheerfully eat and lick things that would make any biped gag.

Kinesthesia in general: absurd sense of balance, general flexibility, strength.

From web searches thus far, I’ve turned up an awful lot of peoples’ pages on their pets, an interesting bit from a lady who’s very emphatic that declawing is a terrible thing to do (which I imagine that cats would agree with), clearly more cute pictures of cuddly kittens that do make one go “awwww”, and a highly amusing faked-picture site about feline bionics (which I stupidly forgot to bookmark), none of which has helped me tremendously.

What do you think, sirs?

Dometic cats have very acute hearing to a range way beyond humans, and beyond that of dogs too.

Their ears are shaped in the optimum way to collect and concentrate sound toward the eardrum.

Those ears can swivel backward, if you’ve ever been behind a cat and make a noise you will often see them turn their ears backward toward you and if the sound is not threatening then instead of taking off they will then turn and take a look.

You might think of considering the reflexes of a cat, they are incredibly quick when they take a swipe at something.

Their ability at carry out explosive action such as jumping almost vertically to the top of a wall from a total standstill should be taken into account. They are not really endurance, trotting animals in the way that dogs are, but this is for domestic cats, others can trot well.

They also do things that have no apparent purpose or logic to humans and are very good at sulking.

According to Desmond Morris, the whiskers are an extremely important part of the cat’s sensory apparatus. They are apparently very sensitive to air motion and they act as “feelers” when the cat is moving around in the dark.

A cat uses its whiskers to determine if it can pass through an opening. According to this site:

The whiskers have the same span as the body is wide. This site also has some links which may be more informative.
I remember some factoid about a cat’s muscles being about 9/10ths as elastic as indian rubber.
At a guess, I’d bet that cat’s are better at hearing higher pitched tones because that’s the sound range most of their prey’s noises would fall into.

Not to state the obvious, but for the purposes of your game, I suspect that the biggest difference is going to be the eye level. The world looks awfully differerent when your eyes are about three inches above the floor. Of course, it also looks awfully different when your eyes are about three inches above the top of the refrigerator.

I’ve heard that cats don’t have any taste buds for sweet, which would make sense, considering their natural diet of almost exclusively meat. I don’t have a cite for that, though. By the same token, one might suppose that they have more taste buds for umami, but I’ve never even heard that secondhand.

Of course, you also shouldn’t forget about a cat’s most important sense, the one which allows them to have full consciousness of the Universe as a whole. You do, of course, know that purring is actually a highly sophisticated way of regulating the cosmic rhythm, and that were it not for cats, the Universe would cease to exist.

I’ve owned cats most of my life. I’ll contribute a few assorted observations, things learned from veterinarians during countless visits, and items I’ve seen in books and other materials on cat life and care. Apologies for not having better cites, but if experience is worth anything, help yourself.

Sight: Cats do see colors. Perhaps not as well as we do, but certainly better than a dog. Night vision has little to do with color vision for the cat–they see much better than we can at night or in the dark partly because their irises can open wider than ours can, thereby allowing the pupil to collect more of what light is available. In total darkness, cats are as sightless as we would be. Their ability to see detail in objects at rest is not as good as ours however, but they are much more attuned to seeing motion–cats notice when things move.

Smell: Not as good as a dog’s, but much more sensitive than ours. It is important to them, but it is important for their purposes–a cat needs a sense of smell to know that these parts of this captured prey are edible, that this water is drinkable, and that this is their (or another cat’s) territory.

Touch: Pads are sensitive, and cats will be careful where they put their feet. But pads are not so sensitive that cats cannot go outdoors in winter and walk through the snow or upon ice. Their whiskers (by the nose, on the side of the head, over the eyes, and behind the forepaws) are extremely sensitive though, and it is through these that a cat picks up much information–even, I’ve been told, changes in wind direction that we would miss.

Hearing: Extremely sensitive. I’ve heard that cats can hear up to about 100,000 Hertz (humans can hear up to about 20,000 Hertz). I don’t know exactly what a dog’s upper limit is, but I believe that a cat’s hearing is better than a dog’s. They are also better than we are at locating the source of a sound because their ears can swivel and otherwise move more than ours.

Taste: They can taste things that would make us bipeds gag, but the cat likes such things. My cats probably wonder how I can taste some things at which they turn up their noses. It’s all a matter of, pardon the pun, personal taste.

Balance: Not an absurd sense of balance, but a better one than we have owing to the design of a cat’s balance mechanism. The semicircular canals of the ear control balance in both cats and humans, but a cat’s three canals are at right angles to each other. Ours are not quite at right angles. But with the canals at exactly 90 degrees to each other, the cat has a much better sense of balancing in the three dimensions.

Movement: Cats are “loose-boned.” Not sure how else to put it, but it is what gives them their flexibility and the ability to stretch as they do. They are also one of the few quadrupeds that walk by moving both legs on one side of their body simultaneously.

I’ll also add that cats have a wide range of vocalizations. We think they say “meow,” but if you listen to a cat over a long period of time, you’ll hear growls, hisses, purrs, cries of distress and pain and anger, mating calls, and trills; in addition to the standard attention-getting meow. However, except for mating and fighting, adult cats seldom vocalize with each other; rather, they use their bodies, especially their tails, to communicate in a form of non-verbal communication. Some say that they meow at humans because they see us vocalizing with each other and figure that this is how to communicate with humans, but I don’t know how much to put into that theory.

For general information on behavior and such, you might try Desmond Morris’ Catwatching, and for a view of cat life through a cat’s eyes, you might try Paul Gallico’s The Silent Miaow. Gallico has also written two novels concentrating on life from a cat’s point-of-view, Thomasina and The Abandoned (the latter is also called Jennie in the UK and Australia.) As well, there are many good reference books on cats, which can explain further about the cat’s senses and how they are used.

Like I said, no concrete cites, just experience gained from a lifetime of cats. Hope it helps.

Actually, purring is the cat equivalent of human moaning. They do it when something feels really nice (“aaaaaah!”) or when they’re in pain (“UUUUUHHH!”)

Night vision has much to do with color vision in that good night vision usually means a sacrifice in color vision and vice versa.
check out . Eyes have rod cells and cone cells. More rod cells means better night vision. More cone cells mean better color vision. Good night vision is not just a matter of opening the pupils larger and admitting more light in. You can only pack so many cells into an eyeball so if you put in more rod cells, you lose some cones. Creatures with good night vision don’t need to see color, they do need to see motion.

Whoops, looks like you’ve got a good point, breaknrun. From this site, dealing with cat vision:

However, the size of the pupil also seems to play a role. From the same site:

Then the site goes on to discuss the cat’s tapetum, which neither of us mentioned but which also plays a large part in the cat’s night vision by reflecting the light admitted back through the rods a second time.

Drastic, you might also want to take note of the site I posted–there may be something there that you can use for your project.

Don’t forget the most important parts of a cat’s life - they sleep more than half the day, and they don’t have owners – they have staff

I read somewhere (lousy cite but if wrong this is a great way to clear things up) that cats can detect the light variation due to the cycling of an AC current.

I would attack my cat books but they are in storage.

The comic strip pickles features a glimpse into the mind of a cat. My favorite strip had a dog and a cat being fed:

Dog: She feeds me and gives me everything I need; she must be a God!

Cat: She feeds me and gives me everything I need; I must be a God!

To further CTC’s message, once you’ve got the physical and sensory stuff down, don’t forget cat attitude. When you’re a cat, the universe is yours.

First, I’d like to compliment you on a model OP. Here’s what I’m looking for, here’s why I need it, here’s what I’ve know, here’s what I’ve found so far on my own. Would that all GQs were so conscientious.

Everybody else has offered great information, so I don’t have a lot to add. There is this small tidbit, though: My veterinarian mentioned in passing that cats see horizontal movement slightly better than vertical movement. In other words, they’re more attuned to, say, a rodent scampering across their field of vision than they are a bird taking off straight up.

Again, this is secondhand, from my vet. Others with more expertise should be able to confirm or refute this, or offer clarifying information.

A couple of things on the subject of purring…

After all this time, nobody has sucessfully identified the exact way that cats produce this sound. There have been many theories involving the diaphram, vocal chords, sinuses, etc., but the exact mechanisim for it has yet to be discovered.
Also, some recent research has determined that an injured cat uses the purr to initiate some sort of self-healing mechanism that seems to help wounds repair themselves faster.
Another use for purring is to help newborn kittens, whose eyes are closed at birth, to find and recognize their mother.
I think I had something else, but it’s gone now. :slight_smile:
Anyway, MY cats use purring to attract and destroy unwary cans of tuna. :wink:

Raccoons do it.


Personal experience.

Smell is a big deal for cats. People usually skim over this, even cat lovers, because it’s pretty alien to us. But cats probably identify friends and foes based more on smell than sight. Places too. That’s why they rub against you and the furniture all the time. So you’ll smell like them and so they’ll know when you’re around.

See if you can find “The Cat’s Mind” by Dr. Bruce Fogle, it talks about all the areas you mentioned in your post in some detail. An intermediate-level cat book with more words than pictures, and no rehashing of taking care of your cat or crazy cat anecdotes. Just… the Straight Dope on cats. Can’t really think of a better way to recommend it.

If you want to check out some cat-perspective fiction to see how it’s been done, try Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams, The Wild Road by Gabriel King, or The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat by SF Schaeffer. And I guess I should mention Watership Down by Richard Adams, which gives cats the short shrift, but is good for getting into an animal mindset, particularly re: importance of smell in everyday life.

Might help you avoid the usual cat cliches (cats are arrogant, cats think they’re gods, cats own their owners, and so on) and do something new.

Also worth noting is their high tolerance for pain compared to humans and a nonfatal terminal velocity.

-fh, who has written some IF using ALAN :slight_smile:

Many many thanks to all of you. The sites provided have taught me interesting things–never knew that the glow in their eyes at night was from a specialized night-vision enhancing epithelial layer on the retina, for instance, and a couple of them stated that purring came from a purely voluntary center in the brain, purring while injured or distressed might be a feline equivalent to people humming or singing when nervously alone in a dark area, that sort of thing. Neat stuff.

Planning to swing by the bookstore tomorrow/this afternoon and yield some of my income to them again, it’s been awhile since I last tithed. :slight_smile: Hopefully they’ll have a couple of the ones mentioned. “The Cat’s Mind” sounds especially on the money from its description, and I am trying to avoid the easy cliches–i.e., the partially-possessed cat won’t be dreaming of sitting regally on a large throne made out of the fur of dogs as miniature mouse-sized humans kowtow to it.

Thanks all again, and certainly keep it coming.

[sub](Using TADS, myself.)[/sub]

The non-circular iris will have some sort of effect on the way things look to a cat - although perception happens in the brain, so what things really look like to a cat is anyone’s guess.

If you were to make a camera with a non-circular aperture, out of focus points of light would be the same shape as the aperture.

The image would also have variable depth of field in different parts; vertical features would be easier to keep in sharp focus than horizontal ones (or have I got this backawrds?)

Pupil, not Iris, sorry

From a slightly more conceptual point of view, you might be interested in What it’s like to be a bat, an essay by Daniel Dennett, eminent philosopher. Granted, it looks like it’s about bats, but it’s actually about consciousness and whether or not we can understand the consciousness of animals in general. It’s really very interesting, even if it’s not directly relevant to what you are doing.