Saturday, 26 October 2013

Heaven Scent - How Not to Offend Your Cat's Senses!

Heaven Scent - Part I

     We love a walk on the beach. Listening to loud rock music or relaxing to the gentle sound of plainchant may be another person's idea of heaven. A back massage can do wonders for tension and a good meal cooked by a loved one often restores our sense of peace and harmony.

     When your partner smells of that new perfume or after-shave you got them for Christmas, floods of happy memories and appealing expectations crash in on our worlds. All these things make us feel great. But if we were cats we may have totally different experiences.

     Imagine instead how shocked you'd be if your partner belched loudly in a high class restaurant or farted in bed! This is probably the equivalent of some of the things we do in the presence of our cats. Is it any small wonder that they lose patience with us from time to time?

     This is a two part post where I'll look at the way a cat perceives the world. Our world. For the most part a cat has no choice but to accept the choices we make on their behalf. By being a little more aware of how our choices and activities affect them we can create a much more harmonious and comfortable home for our cats.

Sight for Sore Eyes

     We place so much importance on sight. So much so that we often forget that a cat literally has quite a different view of the world. For a start they don't need more than a fraction of the light that we need to see perfectly well. Their range of colour differentiation is most effective between blues and violets, though they can see the difference between red and green so don't worry too much if the cat is driving. Having said that, a cat is nearly blinded by what we consider to be normal daylight so make sure that if you do take a ride with a cat it's at night time when their vision is at its most effective!

     A cat relies, after all, on eating the stomachs of their prey to get vegetable nutrition. They don't need to know the colour of berries or fruits. The rodent or bird they're eating has already done the taste test. If the rodent or bird died as a result of eating poisonous berries or fruit then I guess that's just going to result in an unfortunate knock on effect for the cat. Though a cat will scavenge, however, it's much more likely to eat prey that it's killed itself.

A beautiful sunset can be blinding for a cat!
     Cats aren't really designed for daytime. You may have realized this through trying to wake up your cat from her average 16 hours a day kipping. Fundamentally, however, their equipment just doesn't really function very well during the day.

     Cats' Eyes, those little shiny buttons in the road, came about because a cat's eyes reflected the lights of a car and stopped a cat-astrophic (sorry...) accident because the cat was sitting on the edge of the cliff the car was headed towards! The ingenuity of this is that a cat has the capacity to reflect back light from the retina to increase night vision. Imagine staring into a mirror and then shining a searchlight at it that reflects back at you. When you walk into a dark room and turn the lights on, that's what you're doing to your cat!

     You may have noticed that the iris also constricts to a narrow slit in bright conditions. This is to protect their delicate eyes from the excesses of bright sunlight. At nighttime, however, when their eyes become magnificent black pools, they're finely tuned to detect the subtlest of movements - not something that colour detection is all that useful for!

     Don't think that your cat can't see you during the day, though. The eyes still play a major part in communicating mood and emotion. Stare at a cat and you're likely to end up in a confrontation. Glance lazily at her with half closed eyes and it could be the start of a beautiful friendship!

     But just make sure you woo her by candlelight with soft incense burning and purring music playing gently on the hi-fi.

Incensed by Incense

     You've seen your cat approach her food and sniff it. The world of smell is more powerful than sight for a cat. This is the general medium for communication and contains all the information that a cat needs to know about territorial boundaries, family packs and telltale signals about mood or fear.

     If your cat has a litter tray indoors then you'll have observed how meticulously clean she is. If you become lazy and forget to change the litter on a regular basis then you'll also have experienced the "prisoner cell block H" type of behaviour when a cat will pee or pooh anywhere but the litter tray!

    The cat who I live with will only ever toilet outside in the fresh air, in fact, unless she has a problem. The litter tray is a means of communicating her distress to me. Mind you, she's then just as likely to wake me up by trying to pee on the bed! This, frankly, is a smell I can do without.

Pooh is the passport to passage!
     Outside, however, is a different matter. Cats, dogs, mice, foxes, badgers and even pheasants become very precious about their rights of way. I've seen a couple of boundary disputes on my Pusia's patch and generally it culminates in a mound of various types of faeces being left out as an increasingly confusing signal about who owns which bit of the territory. After investigative research we discovered that the photo above was of a particularly stroppy pheasant.

     Whilst we can happily wear all kinds of perfumes and scents to mask our natural smells, a cat actually looks for those pungent body odours to help recognize its friends and reassure itself. The overt signal of a pile of pooh lying out in the open holds a mine of information for any passing trespassers. Animals tend to be able to decipher all kinds of things from the rate at which the smells deteriorate. The pile of pooh becomes a kind of calling card with all the details of the visitor including who they are and how long since they were last in the vicinity.

     As far as our interaction with a cat goes it can actually also be pretty distressing to a cat to find foreign smells all over the human they normally spend time with.

     My partner once came to stay with me and after we'd cuddled Pusia climbed on my pillow, sniffed me and, having decided that she didn't like this new and exotic smell (my parter is from Poland, you understand) she proceeded to rub against me (which was fine) raise her tail (which was cute and elicited lots of oohing and aahing from me) and spray my head with her pee (which was a bit inconvenient under the circumstances). Ever since then my partner has become increasingly worried every time Pusia climbs on her in the middle of the night, particularly if she starts maneuvering her bottom into position!

     On the whole, it's best to keep your smells as consistent as possible. Even bringing in scents from a shopping trip can be distressing to a cat if you traipse them all over the house. Best to take off your shoes (a good idea, in any case), leave them at the threshold and let the cat have a good sniff of them there.

Now Hear This

     The cat's ears take the biscuit! That's almost literally true. If I rustle a bag of cat treats they can be detected from an amazing distance. No kidding! I can stand in the front doorway and shake the bag if I don't know where Pusia is. Within anything from 30 seconds to 5 minutes I'll hear the twisting and breaking sounds of twigs and bushes as she crashes through the undergrowth, leaping over fences and obstacles like the superhero that I know she is! Once she hears the treat bag she's like a homing missile.

     This sensitivity to sound, however, is a double edged sword. You'll have noticed how a cat's ears rotate with amazing agility, completely independently of each other. They can achieve almost perfect 360º hearing through this astounding feat of biological engineering!

     Their range of hearing also outstrips ours by an amazing frequency. The highest of little mouse squeaks is like a dinner gong being sounded to a cat. They can home in on it like the Terminator and, frankly, the mouse is a goner.

What's that racket?
     Imagine that world of silence being invaded by all the unnatural sounds we cram into our daily lives! On a BBC documentary recently I saw how a cat had abandoned ship once the children arrived on the scene. All the commotion and upset just became too much and it sought sanctuary in a house across the road occupied by an elderly and, obviously, much more sedate couple. It's now been there for two years and enjoys a life of slumber cocooned in the relative tranquility of its new home.

     Pusia is lucky that I love my silence as you may have read about in Sounds of Silence recently. I do, however, have a few noisy habits. These revolve around music and have had some quite diverse and entertaining results!

     One of these involved another one of my animal friends, Timo, who is Beata's gorgeous Border Collie. He loves it when I visit because, quite frankly, he's irresistible and the Kerry countryside and beaches are even more pleasurable to walk through with a dog.

Timo has a great singing voice!
     One day in Kerry I decided to play some tunes on the concertina in preparation for a sea shanty trip I was making to The States. We expected that Timo and Mrusia would both run for the hills as soon as the harsh sound of the concertina started up. Their reactions took us quite by surprise.

     I was sitting in the kitchen and when I started to play Timo rushed under the kitchen table. We expected that. Mrusia, the cat who previously lived with a fisherman and whose whole exciting story you can read in Fishing for Cats, watched me curiously from a safe distance.

     Then as I started to play Mru came and settled by my feet, purring! Timo guffawed a bit but continued to watch me from the shelter of the table. As I started singing Timo suddenly perked up and joined in! He howled and hooled and gruffed and growled along with me right the way to the end of the song, happy as Larry. When the music stopped all that could be heard was Beata and my hysterical laughter and Mru's purring as Timo settled down and watched us nervously from under his eyebrows bashfully.

     So there's a lesson in there somewhere. Although cats and dogs, particularly cats, are so sensitive to loud or sudden sounds - poor Pusia nearly had a heart attack today when I rudely woke her from her slumber with a violent sneeze - they become accustomed to familiar sounds that they associate with something friendly. I don't know for sure but I reckon that Mru must have been exposed to this kind of music in her past life as a fisherman's cat. It's certainly just the kind of environment in which the songs I sang would have been performed.

     Pusia, on the other hand, has never really experienced that. If I start playing to her she just shrugs and exits pretty promptly. It's not so disturbing to her that she'll leave the house but the last time I played I found her upstairs with her head buried beneath her two front paws!

Sight, Sound and Scent

     So that's where I'm going to leave it for today. Three major senses that have different priorities for a cat. By being a little more aware of how they affect a cat differently we can make their lives just that bit more comfortable.


  • A cat's eyes are extremely sensitive to bright light. They're not at all concerned by dim or dark conditions and have perfectly good vision at night. The cat can't see us in colour and they respond to motion.

  • Smell is an incredibly powerful motivator for a cat. It's used to establish familiarity and creates an emotional bond. It can also be a scary and threatening thing so if you know you've picked up a foreign scent that could alarm your cat then be prepared for some unexpected behaviour!

  • A cat's ears are the primary tools it uses for hunting and locating the source of its prey. They're finely tuned for this purpose. If we bombard them with extra sounds or stimuli then the cat may become distressed. She'll probably get used to the sounds she associates with us, particularly if it's reinforced with strokes or treats, but there's equally the possibility that she'll find alternative lodgings if it gets too much.

     That's all for today. Look out for the next post where I'll be talking about the final two senses the cat uses (apart from it's incredible capacity to be a supernatural superhero, of course). Find out how we rock the cat's world and keep her sweet in part two of this article!