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The Cat - An Ultimate Athlete!

We all are aware that cats can move and move rather swiftly. We know that they are considered cunning and great hunters, but what most of us do not know is why are they can move so easily.

As a life long cat lover and the caregiver of many (notice I did not say owner) I decided to do some research on the agility of the cat and thought maybe you would like to know what I found out.

With the information found researching the Internet and articles I have found in various veterinary journals, I have learned how a cats moves.

If you were to ask Mother Nature, who is the most athletic animal in the world, she would answer, "the cat." Biologists say cats have not changed in the last 10 million years. Big cats and little cats all move the same. Their agility and flexibility is almost identical. All cats do the same pouncing, stalking low to the ground and running at top speed to catch their prey. It is an inborn trait that has never changed.

Compared to humans and dogs, cats are superior athletes. Not only can they move in ways we cannot imagine, the neurological transmission of signals to the brain and back to the body are faster than that of a dog, this gives them a faster responsive time in order to catch their prey.

All cats have 7 cervical vertebrae like almost all mammals, 13 thoracic vertebrae (humans have only 12), 7 lumbar vertebrae (humans have 5), 3 sacral vertebrae like most mammals (humans have 5 because of our upright nature.) Cats also have (except for the Manx and Bobtail) 22 or 23 caudal vertebrae (humans have 3 t0 5 fused into an internal coccyx.)

The extra lumbar and thoracic vertebrae take into account the cat's great spinal ability and flexibility. The caudal vertebrae form the tail of the cat and are used as a counterbalance to the body during quick movements.

Cats also have free-floating clavicle bones, which allows them to pass their bodies through any space into which they can fit their heads.

Interestingly enough, the tail of a cat acts like a rudder and in moments of speed and turning will move to the opposite side of the turn in order to keep the cat balanced. Cats without tails have trouble with balance.

The tail is also used as sort of a decoy, when a cat is hunting a bird. You may have seen the tip of a cat's tail moving back and forth, and thought it was from the excitement of the chase. It really is a type of ploy, to keep the bird interested in the movement of the tail, so it does not notice the cat.

Birds do not like snakes, but birds need to eat a lot of food and many birds when seeing a snake will keep an eye on it. Since the tail does resemble a snake, (with a little stretch of our imagination,) the bird keeps eating and our friend the cat sneaks up on it unnoticed.

Cats have unique shoulder blades (the scapulas); they are connected to the cat's forearms in such a way that the cat can crouch low to the ground for long periods of time. This ability to crouch down aids the cat in catching its prey.

Cats also have collar bones, (the clavicles) which are considered to be free-floating and allow the cat to move its body into any space it can fit their heads. Our clavicles are fixed and a dog only has what can be called a remnant of one, however a dog can also fit into tight spaces.

Cats have such powerful hind leg muscle power that even the strongest of humans could not compete with a cat when it comes to jumping. The front legs are equally powerful and cats can rotate their legs back and forth at a much greater range than most mammals.

Cats and dogs walk directly on their toes, with the bones of their feet making up the lower part of their leg. Cats also walk very precisely, like all other felines; domestic cats walk with what is known as a direct register. They walk by placing each hind paw almost directly in the print of the corresponding forepaw. This minimizes noise, visible tracks and provides sure footing for the hind paws, when cats navigate rough terrain.

All cats have retractable claws with the exception of cheetahs, which allows them to silently stalk their prey, you may have also noticed that cats have a protrusion on their front paws, often called the "sixth finger." This 'sixth finger" is the carpal pad which is located on the inside of the front "wrists" and it does not function in normal cat walking, but it is thought to be an anti-skidding devise used while jumping.

Cats can voluntarily extend their claws on one or more paws at a time; most of the time cats keep their claws sheathed with skin and fur around their toe pads. This keeps the claws sharp by not wearing them down by walking around and allow silent stalking of prey. Some think cats are ambidextrous and can use either paw, some cats however favor their left paw, which is controlled by the right side of the brain and controls movement and also shows that your cat is highly intuitive.

Cats have rather loose skin, which allow them to turn and confront an enemy even when it has a grip on them.

A cat's senses are attuned to hunting; they have a highly advanced state of hearing, great eyesight and touch receptors (whiskers) which make them great hunters. Whiskers help a cat with both balance and determining the width of a space. The whiskers help a cat feel its way around, especially at night. These whiskers act like tiny fingers transmitting information to the brain, they are an important part of a cat's awareness of its body and motion in space.

However, as athletic as cat is, it can suffer injuries. A cat has the natural ability to right itself during a fall, so that it lands on its feet. A complex organ in the inner ear, which determines a specific sequence of events, governs this ability.

In simple terms, this organ sends a message to the brain about the position of a cat's head in relation to the ground. In fractions of seconds, the brain commands the head to change position, in order to protect it. When the head is level, the cat flips the top half of its body around to face the ground, then flips the rear and uses its tail to adjust for any over balance. The cat lands on the ground with all four feet and its back arched to cushion the impact.

A cat can do this whole sequence from a distance as short as one foot and it takes a total of 1.8 seconds to accomplish it. Experts say a cat can survive a fall of more than 60 feet. All I can say to that is "wow."

In case you are wondering how does a cat know how high to jump. We have a six-foot privacy fence around our back yard and when our cats want to go out front they generally jump to the top of the fence and then jump down. I am always amazed to see them do this in one quick leap. Apparently this is a rare ability in the animal kingdom. A cat's face is flat between the eyes, so that both eyes can easily work together, it is because of this, that the cat can visually judge distances with remarkable accuracy. The cat can actually see three-dimensionally and focus more sharply. Amazing is it not?

Cats generally stay active for a good many years of their lives, the only thing that can impede their normal flexibility and balance are injuries and arthritis. Sometimes we are not aware that our cats have been injured and it is during their later years that these pre-existing conditions show up. Arthritis of course, can show up any time.

Cats are secretive about how they feel and you need to be alert in order to notice any changes in your little athlete's movements or behaviors. Some things you should be aware of are:

  • Excessive licking over the hip area, which may indicate pain
  • Not wanting to jump anymore on the couch or bed
  • A change in gait, walking a little strangely
  • Crying out when being picked up
  • Lack of interest in playing or doing other things it liked to do.

Many of these symptoms are treatable and you should take your cat to the vet should you notice anything different about its behavior.

The reason cats do not like to let you know they hurt, is that it is ingrained in their brain, as a protection against predators and is something they have never forgot. So it is up to us to be more aware of our cat's actions.

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