Updated: Apr 11, 2019
Considering I have been living with cats my entire life, been a cat parent for almost nine years, and worked in cat rescue for two years, I didn’t think there was much left for me to learn about our feline counterparts. Well, outside of the vast range of the feline medical field that is. Boy was I wrong! As tiny as cats may seem, their little bodies have so many interesting features and abilities. Today I thought we would cover just five of those cool tidbits.
This nifty feature was the inspiration for this blog post. I recently tried a new mechanic at AAMCO here in Athens. They have a gorgeous store cat named Beep Beep who will win your heart right away. The manager obviously loves the cat, his first, and has quite enjoyed learning all about cats since Beep Beep arrived in a truck one day a couple of years ago. He was the one who introduced me to the Primordial Pouch. He even had the article he had read printed out and pinned to a bulletin board in the office. When I explained I had no idea what he was talking about, he quickly retrieved the article for me to read.
Have you ever noticed the saggy area on your cat’s tummy, right in front of their hind legs? That is the Primordial Pouch. Even in the rescue world, I had heard more than once this sag was due to being spayed or neutered. Not so! It is a natural part of your cat’s anatomy! In fact, there are actually some breeds of cats, like the Bengal and the Pixie Bob, where the pouch is part of the breed standard.
The pouch serves a few different purposes. In regards to their ancestry, it is believed the pouch allowed the stomach to expand at mealtime when the cat would gorge after a kill. Kinda like when you unbutton your pants after a big meal. From there, the loose skin allows their legs to fully extend behind them when in full stride. For my cats’ purposes, it usually allows their legs to fully extend when napping on their backs and really relaxed. In all seriousness, though, cats have loose skin in general which allows them to wriggle out the grasp of predators or to even just completely utilize their natural flexibility. This leads to what is perhaps the most important reason for this pouch: protection in a fight. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed watching your cat bunny kick a toy when playing. This is playing is practice for a fight when cats will rake their hind claws down the other cat’s stomach. There a lot of important organs in that area and the pouch helps to protect them.
In addition to the misconception that the pouch is due to being spayed and neutered, it is often misconstrued as a sign of the cat being overweight. This is not the case, as you now know. However, pouches can vary is size from cat to cat and it is an area where extra fat will be stored, so it is important to keep an eye on your cat’s weight.
You may already know that whiskers can be an indicator of your cat’s mood. In fact, when we do our next installment of “What is Your Cat Trying to Say,” whiskers will be one of the topics. Whiskers are much more than mood rings, though.
Cats have eight to 12 whiskers (vibrissae or tactile hairs) on either side of the nose in four rows. The top two rows can move separately from the bottom two rows. They also have whiskers above their eyes, on their chin, and on the backs of their lower front legs or wrists (known as carpal whiskers). Whiskers are thicker and rooted more deeply than normal hairs in an area rich in nerves and blood. The whiskers are, therefore, so sensitive they can even detect slight changes in air currents! This level of sensitivity means it can be uncomfortable for your cat if you mess with their whiskers. This is also why it is good to supply your cat with a whisker sensitive bowl with low sides that will not press on their whiskers as they eat.
A cat’s ability to feel changes in air currents with their whiskers means they can detect movement. This comes in handy when on the hunt. They can detect the small, swift movements of prey. It also helps them position their prey under their front paws for the fatal bite, since cats are farsighted and have trouble seeing what is directly under their nose. The ability to feel changes in air currents also helps your cat navigate in the dark. They use their whiskers in a fashion similar to us walking in the dark with our hands out to feel our surroundings, trying not to stub our toe on the coffee table.
For our svelte cat friends, whiskers can help determine if they will fit through an opening. The muzzle whiskers are about the same length as the cat’s body width, so if they can fit their head and whiskers through an opening comfortably, their body should be able to follow behind. Again, this only applies to cats of a proper weight. For cats who are overweight, this whisker test will not work. Just another reason to keep our furry friends healthy!
The whiskers above the eyes help protect the eyes from injury. When something brushes up against those whiskers they trigger a protective eye blink. This can be helpful when hunting in underbrush or when fighting another animal.
Now that you understand how much those little whiskers do, you can also understand how harmful it can be to damage or cut the whiskers. Cats naturally shed a whisker or two on occasion, but a complete loss of whiskers can be very disorienting if not painful. The cat will lose its ability to hunt and to navigate. Cats can become fearful, dizzy, and disoriented.
For a last whisker tidbit, the whiskers can change color as the cat gets older. It can be hard to detect unless the cat is a dark color, but whiskers will grey!
The third eyelid. It’s one of the features of a cat that many people don’t notice or pay attention to until shows up looking icky because of an illness or injury. However, it is another important part of your cat’s anatomy and the next segment of today’s post.
Other names for the third eyelid include the nictitating membrane, nictitans, and haw. It slides back and forth across the eye from the center to the outside. It is a moist membrane containing cartilage and a gland that produces a significant portion of the tears the eye needs to stay healthy and moist. Not only does it produce these tears, it helps hold the tears against the eye. The eyelid may be pigmented (dark) or it may lack pigment and be pale or pink from the the blood vessels that run through it.
Cats are not the only animals to have a third eyelid but, unlike other animals, for cats the movement of the eyelid is passive. The forward pressure of the eyeball keeps the eyelid hidden. When the eyelid is needed, cats have a special muscle behind the eye to pull the eye back into the socket a little and allow the third eyelid to move up and across the eye. The eyelid can protect the eye from injury and sweep foreign material off of the eye.
Due to its passive nature, the third eyelid is not usually something cat parents will see. The most likely time a cat parent will see the eyelid is when a cat is in a deep sleep and very relaxed. Some cats have protuberant third eyelids by nature, the Siamese breed for instance. Cats who have lost a lot of weight can also have visible third eyelids because the fat pads behind the eyes may have also decreased in size. The change in size of the fat pads will change the position of the eye in the socket and allow the third eyelid to show. Damage to the nerve control of the eyelid would also result in a prominent third eyelid.
A visible third eyelid is really only of concern if it makes a sudden appearance, if you don’t normally see it but now it’s showing itself. Eye and respiratory infections are common causes of eye pain and third eyelid protrusion. More serious problems involve corneal ulcers, foreign objects, inflammation of the eye, or trauma to the eye. Some medications, like tranquilizers, can cause the eyelid to show but the effects are generally temporary. If the there is a lesion in the eye socket, such as a tumor, dental abscess, or cyst, the pressure in the socket will increase causing the eyelid to protrude. Horner’s Syndrome, a neurological condition, often happens after an ear cleaning if the eardrum ruptures during cleaning. There is a nerve that runs to the eye through the ear and it can become irritated by the rupture. This usually resolves with time. There are also systemic disorders like autoimmune diseases or low blood calcium that can cause the third eyelid to elevate. A relatively common condition called Haws Syndrome causes bilateral third eyelid protrusion for unknown reasons but, again, generally resolves within a few weeks.
Cats have 18 toes all together, with four on each paw and a dewclaw on each front paw. They are born with claws, a sign of how natural they are to a cat’s anatomy and not something that should be removed. The claws are curved helping them to hold onto prey or climb, though they don’t help much getting back down. The claws are retractable such that when the cat and its paws are relaxed the claws are retracted and sheathed with skin and fur. This helps keep the nails sharp but also allows a cat to walk more silently. Stealth mode!
Claws are like fingernails and grow throughout a cat’s life. The outer sheaths of the claws, which become dull over time, are shed when a cat scratches at things. Cats are very good at keeping their claws in check by scratching their front paws on scratchers or cat trees and using their teeth to shed the back claws. However, it is a good idea to keep an eye out and make sure the claws are in check. Their curved nature can lead to what we could call an ingrown nail, as the the claw wraps around and starts to push into the paw pad. The curve also can cause your cat to get stuck on things like looped carpet. As cats get older, they may not wear their claws down as fast, resulting in the need for more frequent claw trimmings.
Cats walk on their toes which is known as being digitigrade. In contrast, humans are plantigrade walkers, which means the sole of the foot is the walking surface.The dewclaw is proximal and sort of like a thumb for people. It doesn’t line up with the other toes and doesn’t even touch the ground when the cat is walking. The dewclaw helps your cat grasp things when it’s hunting or playing and it’s flexible for extra control over caught prey. Since it does not make contact like the other claws, it is especially important to make sure it stays trimmed.
Some cats have a mutation called polydactylism which results in a cat having extra toes. Cats with this mutation are totally normal and the extra toes are not harmful or dangerous. Jake, a Canadian polydactyl cat with 28 toes, seven on each paw, was recognized by Guinness World Records as having the highest number of toes on a cat. Various combinations of anywhere from four to seven toes per paw are the more common occurrence. Polydactyly is most commonly found on the front paws only, it is rare for a cat to have polydactyl hind paws only, and polydactyly of all four paws is even less common.
Our first installment of “What is Your Cat Trying to Say” covered tail talk. Tails are so mesmerizing in the way they move and what they communicate. Tails have much more going on, though, than what the eye can behold.
A cat tail has 19 to 23 articulated caudal (tail) vertebrae, which is about 10% of the total number of bones in a cat body. The average length of a cat tail is 11 inches for a male and 9.9 inches for a female. There is an extensive group of muscles, ligaments, and tendons holding the tail together and providing its amazing mobility. The caudal muscles lie on the lumbar (lower back) vertebrae and sacrum (tail bone) and caudal vertebrae. The muscles are attached to the caudal vertebrae by tendons, the most posterior tendons attach to the last caudal vertebrae. Part of the musculature of the tail is formed from muscles associated with the rectum, the anus, and the pelvic diaphragm. Four to seven paired nerves serve the tail muscles and these muscles have many tendons that insert from the caudal vertebrae.
What does all of that really mean? Even though the spinal cord doesn’t extend all the way into the cat tail, an injury can still cause serious nerve damage. When the spinal cord ends, the nerves that help to control and provide sensation to the tail, hind legs, bladder, large intestine, and anus have to extend outward without the protection of the spinal bones. Thus, a yank on a cat’s tail can over-stretch or even tear these nerves and cause temporary to permanent inability to walk, inability to hold the tail upright, incontinence, or chronic pain.
Cats can certainly live without a tail. A cat can learn to compensate for an amputated tail and certain breeds, like the Manx, are born without tails. However, the tail is useful to a cat. It can be used as a balancing tool. If a cat is walking along a narrow ledge and wants to look to one side, it will automatically shift its tail to the other side to reposition the body’s center of gravity. As a counterweight, tails can be useful when making a sharp turn while running. The tail can also be used as a hunting tool. For hunting, since a cat can’t see prey that’s still, it can move its tail to entice small movements in its target.
In conclusion, cats are again proving to be mysterious creatures with many things to teach. No more picking on Charming for his floppy belly! How about you? Did you already know all of this or did you learn something new? Let us know in the comment section!
Why Some Cats Look as if They Have a Flabby Belly - Pam Johnson-Bennett
Why do so many cats have a saggy belly? - Jennifer Sims
You Cat's Whiskers - Pam Johnson-Bennett
7 Cool Facts About Cat Whiskers - Jane A. Kelley
That Mysterious Third Eyelid - Dr. Diana Lafer
How Do Cats' Third Eyelids Work? - Dr. Eric Barchas
What is that Toe on the Leg of a Cat? - Melodie Anne
8 Fun Facts About Cats' Claws - Amanda Woodhead
5 Cool Cat Tail Facts - Jane A. Kelley
Structure and Function of the Tail in Cats - Virginia Wells