Catwoman tells the truth about cats

Posted: Wednesday, August 23, 2006

There are myths and "old wives' tales" about cats, but some things you hear are true - or surround a kernel of truth. Take these, for example:

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Can cats really see in the dark?

Cats see incredibly well when it's almost completely dark. They need just a fraction (1/6) of the light we need to see clearly. Inside the cat's eyes is a shiny lining that works like the reflector behind the bulb in a car's headlight. (Deer have the same reflective lining, which is why their eyes glow at night, as do a cat's.) The lining improves night vision by bouncing back the even the smallest amount of light, giving the retina a second chance to absorb it. In addition, the cat has many more light-magnifying cells in its retina than we do.

But in complete darkness, the cat can't see any better than you or I. He navigates more successfully because of his keener senses of hearing, smell and touch.

Do cats always land on their feet?

Usually. The cat has a keen sense of balance, centered in the inner ear. A falling cat immediately turns his head right-side up. The rest of the body follows in one smooth twist. Because cats have no collarbone, the front legs swing freely in line with the head. Five extra vertebrae give the cat a super-flexible back that quickly rolls down the hindquarters. Voila! He lands on his feet.

A cat's legs and feet are designed to absorb the shock of a fall from heights up to 20 feet, about as high as the second floor of a house.

I once had a cat with more enthusiasm than sense. In summer, when windows were open, she'd sit for hours on a second-story window sill, entranced by birds' flutters and chirps on a telephone wire just beyond her reach. On two occasions, she became so twitterpated that she, herself, took flight. One July 4th, she launched herself after skyrockets. Each time she made a soft landing in the lilac bushes below - and she somehow lived to be 18 years old.

Falls from heights greater than 20 feet usually mean broken bones. Injuries also result from short falls that don't give the cat enough time to completely lower his landing gear.

Can cats really find their way home from a long way away?

Yes, indeed! Cats - like salmon, birds, bees and dogs - have a homing instinct that has been scientifically verified. Cats' brains store detailed mental maps that allow them to range far from home, taking appropriate shortcuts and blazing trails through parts unknown. They observe the terrain and use both hearing and smell to find their way. Scientists think, but have not yet proven conclusively, that cats - like birds - have magnetized cells in the brain. Like built-in compasses, these cells tell the animal where he is in relation to the earth's magnetic field.

A tomcat called Ninja holds the long-distance record for incredible journeys in the United States. Ten years ago, his family moved from Utah to Washington State. Shortly thereafter, Ninja disappeared. He showed up one year later at the old home place - 850 miles away.

Does a cat really head for the one person in the room who doesn't like cats?

More often than not, but the cat isn't being perverse. He is approaching the person who doesn't make eye contact. In the body language of cats, that means, "I'm friendly, not challenging you. Come on over and check me out."

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats.

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