What makes your cat so unique compared to your dog or pet bird? Cats are evolutionary works of art. Sleek predators
Here are a few evolutionary characteristics cats share that makes them so perfectly designed as cats.
A long and flexible spine with strong, efficient legs designed for running
Cats have a skeleton (not including the tail) that consists of close to the same number of vertebrae as humans: 30 in cats versus 32-34 in humans, which are arranged in a similar ratio of cervical, thoracic and lumbar and hip/sacral joints. A cat’s tale provides an additional 14-28 extra vertebrae, making the total number of vertebrae somewhere between 44-58. The cat’s skeleton is more flexible than ours, with vertebrae farther apart and padding in between. This flexible spine allows them to arch their back, maneuver through small spaces and run exceptionally well.
The bulk of a cat’s muscle power is located in their back and hind legs. Their powerful forward movements combined with this flexible, mobile spine makes their movements highly efficient. Their spine allows the cat to increase the distance of each stride by extending their legs further backward and out ahead of them. In contrast, we would need to increase the total number of steps in order to run faster. Cheetahs have the longest, most flexible spine of all big cats which allows it to have a large stride of up to 25 feet per stride. Check out this video of a cheetah running, called a “perfect running machine for a cat that hunts alone,” by Cathryn Hilker, a trainer at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Other aspects that make cats exceptional movers include:
- Cats walk in a “digitigrade” fashion meaning that they walk on their toes which is more efficient for running, braking and turning. The opposite is “plantigrade” which is how we walk, with our foot bones placed flat on the ground.
- Cat’s also don’t possess a collarbone, instead, they have a small piece of bone embedded into their muscle. Because they don’t need to move their arms out (
laterally) to their side, only forward, a collarbone isn’t necessary. This allows them to take up less width in their chest area and have a higher range of motion in the shoulder joint, both of which allows them to squeeze into smaller areas and fully extend their forearms during a sprint.
- They also use their tail, which can add 14-28 extra vertebrae, while running to readjust their center of gravity, or in situations that require good balance, such as walking on a thin fence.
A brain designed for sensory intake
A cat’s sense of smell, taste, hearing, and sight are much more highly developed than are ours for the purpose of stalking and hunting prey. Their ears are cone-shaped and act as echo chambers, called auditory bullae and pick up sensitive noises such as mice rustling in the bushes. They’re able to hear high frequency sounds much better than humans.
A cat’s eyes also operate much more efficiently than ours do in low light, however, they can’t see in pitch black any more than we’re able to. They have a higher ratio of rods to cones than us which increases their ability to see in darker areas. They also have binocular vision, as do we, which is essentially an overlapping field of vision created by both eyes which allows us to see in 3-D. A cat’s total field of vision is greater than ours, 285 degrees to 210 degrees while their binocular vision is also slightly higher than ours at 130 degrees versus 120 degrees. Having eyes located on the side of your head also helps to give cats a wider perceptive than humans.
The perfect carnivore
Cats are ideal hunters thanks to all of these evolutionary designs. As strict carnivores, cats actually don’t possess an ability to taste sweet foods. They are designed for stalking, catching and killing prey. Their jaws are strong and secured with bundles of tight muscles throughout the skull and jaw to secure the jaw during a bite. They have teeth that are designed for shredding and biting, tongues for stripping the meat and digestive systems that are shorter than dogs and humans for their size because they are designed strictly for digesting meat.
Cats are incredible and are evolutionary designed to be efficient, effective predators. And these are just a few of the many unique traits that cats share. Remember this when you look over at your tubby ginger lounging on your bed and thank him for being so agreeable and cute, and for not acting on the hunter instincts that are so well designed into him.
Source: Taylor, D. (1984). You & Your Cat. New York, New York: Random House.