The Science Behind Your Cat's Cute Features

striped cat with white paws walks around floor with pine cones

Treehugger / Jordan Provost

If you're a cat lover, you likely think every part of your feline friend is adorable — from his fuzzy paws to his tiny pink nose. But while we may exclaim over their furry ears and darling whiskers, these parts all serve a remarkable purpose that may go unnoticed at first glance.

Get up close and personal with tiny kitty paws, noses and tongues through these macro photos and learn more about your adorable furry friend.


close up cat's ear
Cats are actually born deaf. Their ear canals don't open until they are a week old. Astrid Gast/Shutterstock

Cats' ears contain 32 muscles that allow them rotate their ears 180 degrees to pinpoint a sound. Although dogs are known for their hearing, cats' hearing is actually better because they can distinguish higher pitches and even detect tiny variances in sound. However, despite this stellar hearing, your cat still might not come when you call.

A vestibular apparatus in a cat's inner ear acts as its balance and orientation compass so that it always knows which way is up. It's what allows cats to (almost always) land on their feet.


cat's eye close up
Cats have strong eyesight and are able to see far-away objects especially well, which helps with hunting. Nadezhda Bolotina/Shutterstock

Cats can see well in one-sixth the light we can because their eyes have more rods than ours, which allow them to detect more light, and because they have a layer of tissue in their eyes called the tapetum lucidum. This layer reflects light within the eye and is what makes cats' eye shine in the dark.

Cat eyes have vertical pupils because the shape allows the pupil to change size faster than the round ones we have. Smaller pupils allow less light to enter the eye, which is why cats are less likely to get blinded by sudden changes in brightness.


cat's nose close up
The naked skin around a cat's nostrils is called leather. mark.dark.9000/Shutterstock

Felines have 200 million scent receptors in their nasal cavities, and they use their incredible sense of smell to find prey. However, they don't have nearly as many taste receptors as we do, so it's smell — not flavor — that attracts them to food. This is why cats with respiratory infections often lose their appetite.

Cats' noses are as unique as human fingerprints. They each have a unique pattern of bumps and ridges, and no two kitty's noses are alike.


cat's whiskers close up
A cat's whiskers should never be cut because it would disrupt their balance. iwegemer/Shutterstock

Whiskers are long, stiff touch receptors known as vibrissae. They're embedded in a cats' body and send information about the animal's surroundings to sensory nerves, allowing felines to detect changes in their surroundings. Whiskers respond to vibrations in the air, and they allow cats to gauge if they can fit into tight spaces.

In addition to the whiskers on either side of the nose, felines also have shorter whiskers above their eyes, on their chins and on the backs of their lower front legs.

Whiskers, like tails and ears, can indicate a cat's mood. Relaxed whiskers that stick out sideways mean the animals is calm. When they're pushed forward, they indicate excitement or alertness. Whiskers flattened to the face mean fear or aggression.


cat's tongue close up
Grooming releases endorphins. So, a cat will over-groom if it's stressed. Joanna Zaleska/Shutterstock

When a cat licks your skin, that sandpaper sensation you feel is caused by the papillae on her tongue. Papillae are tiny hair-like barbs made of keratin, and they help cats groom their fur, and they aid in eating. The miniature barbs help cats pick up small bits of food and lick meat from bones. The papillae are curved and hollow-tipped, which allows cats to transfer saliva from its mouth to its fur for grooming.

Unlike most animals, cats can't detect sweet flavors. However, they can taste something we can't: adenosine triphosphate, a molecule present in meat.

When cats drink, they use their tongues to strike a delicate balance between gravity and inertia. Their tongues barely brush the surface of a liquid to pull water upward, forming a column of liquid. The cat then closes its jaws before gravity pulls the water back. Cats lap at a rate of four times per second, which is too fast for the human eye to see.


cat's paw close up
A cat's paws act as shock absorbers to protect them when they jump from high places. koi005/Shutterstock

While the pads of cats' paws are strong enough to offer protection from rough terrain, they're still sensitive enough to detect temperature and texture. They also contain sweat glands that help regulate body temperature. Cats have other glands tucked between their paw pads that secrete oil with a scent that only cats can detect. When cats scratch a surface, they deposit some of this scent.

A study also revealed that most cats have a dominant paw that they use for eating and picking up things — just like humans are either right-handed or left-handed. Researchers also noted that male cats tend to be left-pawed more than female cats, and 1/3 of cats in the study didn't have a preference.

The pigment that colors a cat's fur and skin also gives color to the pads of the animal's feet. Often the pads are the same color as the cat.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.