How Cats Work

By: Joy H. Montgomery

Cat Anatomy

Cats use their long whiskers to hunt, maneuver in the dark and process information.
Cats use their long whiskers to hunt, maneuver in the dark and process information.
Thomas Northcu/tPhotodisc/Thinkstock

The cat is nature's very own Inspector Gadget, with a svelte body equipped with a variety of cool capabilities that make the feline truly fascinating. This agile creature has a skeletal system made up of 244 bones, with about 27 bones located in its tail, which helps with balance and movement. The cat can get in and out of tight and high spaces thanks to its masterful tail and its detached clavicle, which allows its shoulders to move back and forth in rhythm with its legs.

A cat's paws serve as a one-stop shop for a multitude of uses. Unlike dogs, their paws can turn, which helps with climbing and grasping. They also use their paws for self-grooming, temperature regulation and heat detection. In addition, cats can feel vibrations on the ground with their paws, alerting them to potential prey. Once a cat is aware of prey nearby, the claws are activated, thanks to a special ability to retract and extend their sharp talons as needed. When a cat is self-cleaning or walking, however, the claws are retracted behind a sheath of skin.


Cats come in a multitude of colors and patterns, but they all carry the tabby gene passed down from the African wild cat. Most coats seen in purebred cats are a result of carefully selected breeding. Cat hair is divided into two types, longhair and shorthair. Longhaired cats, like the Himalayan, have guard hairs around 5 inches (nearly 13 centimeters) in length, with a dense undercoat. Shorthaired cats, like the American shorthair, have guard hairs measuring an average of 2 inches (5 centimeters) long with a less thick undercoat. A cat's coat is also multifunctional as a temperature regulator and a pain and motion sensor. If you've ever seen a cat with its hair standing up, this could mean the cat is either cold or afraid, hence the term "scaredy cat."

The cat's whiskers count as hair, but they're thicker and have their own special functions. The whiskers operate much like a compass or GPS, allowing a cat to sense space and move around in the dark without bumping into objects. The very flexible whiskers will also move backward during mealtime or forward if the cat is hunting. To cut a cat's whiskers is to remove its ability to process information.

Cats also have sensors in their noses, upper lips and ears, allowing them to sense movement and making them stealth communicators. And if all this isn't enough to prove Inspector Gadget has nothing on the feline, the cat's eyes are equipped with special night vision and the ability to narrow the pupils in daylight. Do all of these amazing anatomical abilities affect a cat's behavior? Read on to find out.