by Sarah Shelley and John Wible
We don’t want to start a big fight about cats versus dogs, but here in the Section of Mammals at Carnegie Museum of Natural History we are officially cat people! There are pros and cons to both as pets, but for us the pros for cats outweigh the litterbox scooping and hairballs. When we see dog owners with those bags inverted on their hands to pick up … we are happy we are cat people.
Meet Our Cats
This is Roux, Sarah’s cat. Her favorite toy is a clothespin, despite all the expensive ones that Sarah buys for her. Roux thinks it is a hat. She is nine years-old and all black apart from her face full of white whiskers.
Whiskers or vibrissae, to use their technical term, are very thick hairs that are highly sensitive. Although cats have great eyesight for distance, movement, and night vision, they are short-sighted, which means they don’t see well what is right in front of them. The whiskers counteract their short-sightedness.
Cats don’t just have whiskers on their faces. They also have them on the inside of their front legs. The function of these is less obvious, but they likely aid in climbing and hunting.
Another fun fact? A group of cats is called a clowder. This is John’s cat clowder: Boots, Bela, and Phoenix. All three are rescues. Boots is the oldest, but we really don’t know how old she is. Bela and Phoenix are two, although not sisters.
Boots rules the kitchen and really likes to rub against bags or boxes on the kitchen counter. She is using scent glands on the side of her face to mark what is hers. Cats often do this to their owners when they return home to make them smell familiar again. They don’t just have scent glands on their faces. Amongst the other places are the pads on their paws, which helps explain their kneading behavior.
Why is Boots sitting on the computer? She is keeping an eye on the mouse.
Bela is a bit of a weirdo, perched on a box of peaches. It does not look very comfortable. She is a tabby, actually a mackerel tabby, which is not a specific cat breed, but a distinctive coat pattern. The word tabby comes from Attabiyah, a neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraq, which is famous for a type of silk. Tabbies got their name because their striped coats resemble the wavy patterns in the Attabiyah silk.
Did you know that domestic cats are not the only cats that like boxes? Check out this video of big cats playing in boxes.
If you think Bela is weird, check out where Phoenix likes to chill. Is this what they mean by curiosity killing the cat or a cool cat? (Don’t worry, she didn’t stay in the fridge too long.)
She parked herself with the lettuce and not the ice cream and it’s no wonder why: cats don’t taste sweetness. But they do have an extra sensory organ that humans don’t have, called the vomeronasal organ. This paired organ sits in the floor of the nasal cavity and is connected to the oral cavity by ducts located behind the incisor teeth. To get a particular odor into the vomeronasal organ, cats make a funny face called the Flehmen response where they open their mouth, wrinkle their lips, and stop breathing, as demonstrated by Roux. The vomeronasal organ is for pheromone perception.
So, here’s a mammalogy joke: what do you call a cat that just ate a mallard? A duck-filled fatty puss!
Sarah Shelley is a postdoctoral research fellow and John Wible is Curator in the Section of Mammals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences working at the museum.