Dogs may seem to have the market cornered when it comes to exceptional hearing, but most cat owners will tell you their feline friends have an equally supernatural-seeming hearing ability. Is your cat trying to tell you that your house is haunted, or are they just picking up on sounds undetectable to human ears? Just how good is a cat's sense of hearing?
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Much like humans, cats use five senses to understand the world around them — eyesight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. A cat relies mainly on its sense of smell to identify people and objects. Cats have a sense of smell about 14 times better than that of humans. With over 80 million olfactory receptors, they are able to detect chemical and hormonal scents that humans cannot. Cats also have a specialized organ called the Jacobson's organ which aids in their superior scent-detecting abilities. The Jacobson's organ, located on the roof of the mouth, assists with processing chemical signals and pheromones - an important tool for feeding and mating purposes. A cat investigating a smell may open its mouth wide, allowing scent molecules to make contact with both the taste buds and the Jacobson's organ, in order to figure out what the scent is.
Millions of years of evolution have given cats an incredible sense of hearing in order to accurately locate prey. Early ancestors of domestic cats were ambush predators — rather than chasing their prey over long distances, they would lie in wait until the opportune moment to strike. Being able to hear the faint sounds of a small animal's footsteps or the high pitches of its vocalizations was key in determining a cat's hunting success.
Sound is measured using both frequency (measured in Hertz) and amplitude (measured in decibels). Frequency refers to how high or low pitched a sound is, while amplitude refers to the intensity of a sound (or how loud it is). A cat's ears are impeccably designed to pick up sound. The pinnae, or external ears, are large, cone-shaped, and erect and serve to both catch and amplify sound. Cat ears can amplify sound waves two to three times for frequencies between 2,000 and 6,000 Hertz.
Cats are able to precisely pinpoint where a sound is coming from as well. Because sound travels in waves, it arrives at different times in each ear and the frequency and amplitude can differ slightly between ears. The positioning of a cat's ears on its head, in addition to the size of its head, helps to minimize this difference. With their ears on the sides of their heads, they are able to hear higher frequencies more accurately and can pinpoint high frequency sounds that are only three inches apart from three feet away. Over 33 muscles in the ears help a cat to finely position them in order to locate the source of a sound.
How good is a cat's hearing?
Cats can hear lower frequencies about as well as humans (around 20 Hertz at the lowest) but are capable of detecting sounds up to 65,000 Hertz, or about 1.6 octaves higher than humans and 1 octave higher than dogs. Humans are most sensitive to sounds around 3,000 Hertz (about the pitch of human voices), while cats are most sensitive to sounds around 8,000 Hertz. Cats are also more sensitive to louder noises than humans and have one of the broadest ranges of hearing in mammals for sounds at about 70 decibels. Human voices clock in at around 60 - 70 decibels, while a gunshot can be up to 140 decibals. Generally speaking, any noise that is too loud for you is even louder for your cat.
Deafness in cats
Cats can experience hearing loss or deafness as a result of aging, illness, or genetics. The majority of deafness in cats is acquired, though, and can be due to ear infections, tumors or polyps, or even certain chemicals that are ingested orally or absorbed by the inner ear. Signs of hearing loss or deafness in cats can include persistent scratching at the ears, swelling or discharge, or behavioral changes that may indicate a cat is having trouble hearing. The best way to prevent hearing loss in your cat is to keep their ears clean. Watch for any symptoms and make an appointment with your vet if you notice anything unusual.
Cats may not have the same reputation as dogs for their stellar sense of hearing, but they can in fact detect frequencies higher than canines. Cats' ears are perfectly designed to catch and amplify sounds, which historically served them well as predators of small rodents.