How Does My Cat Hear The World?
Out of all the creatures in the animal kingdom, our cats must have the most peculiar hearing of all. Surely there’s no other species out there that is able to combine the exquisite sensitivity required to hear a food packet being opened from several rooms away, with a complete inability to hear us calling for them when it’s time to go to the vet?! 😹
In all seriousness though, our cats’ hearing is pretty spectacular. Especially given that their vision is actually quite lacking in lots of respects (See How does my cat see the world?) our cats rely on their hearing to navigate the world much more than we might expect.
So, what does the world sound like to our cats?
Domestic cats have one of the broadest hearing ranges of any mammal, covering 10.5 octaves, vs. a human’s 9.3 octaves. That means that if somebody made a piano that stretched over the cat’s full hearing range, there would be around 14 keys on it that they could hear but we couldn’t.
These ‘extra’ keys would fall at both ends of the piano, encompassing both very low pitched sounds and very high pitched ones – but there are more covering the high pitch end of the spectrum.
It begs the question – why have cats developed a hearing ability that stretches so much higher than ours? The answer is that their main prey, such as mice and other rodents, use ultra-high pitched sounds to communicate with each other. These sounds are far too high for us to hear, but our cats’ super-high-pitch hearing lets them eavesdrop on this mouse chatter, and use it to track down their prey. Sneaky, huh?!
And in case you’re wondering what mouse chatter sounds like – here’s a recording of a mouse ‘singing’ to his mate, shifted down in pitch so that we can hear it:
Why does my cat hate the sound of the vacuum cleaner / hairdryer?
Our cats’ sensitivity to high pitched sounds also explains some other quirks of their behaviour. In particular, many cats (not all) have an unusual aversion to vacuum cleaners and hairdryers. Part of this is due to the sheer volume of these noisy items, but it has also been discovered that these appliances throw out a lot of ultra high-pitched sound that we’re not aware of because our hearing isn’t sensitive enough.
For our cats, though, those sounds are perfectly audible, and pretty annoying at high volume. That’s why you’ll often notice your cat retreat from the room or hide under the bed when the vacuum cleaner or hairdryer is in use!
Are there any sounds that cats enjoy? Can they listen to music?
It turns out that pretty much all types of human music – from classical to classic rock, are lost on our cats. Studies show that they’d rather listen to silence than our human music, no matter how well-crafted or lyrically masterful.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy music. Recent studies have shown that they do appreciate ‘species-specific’ music. That is, music created within a cats’ natural hearing range, that borrows the natural tempos of inter-cat communication. The researchers also found that age plays a role in a cat’s appreciation of species-specific music. Younger and older cats were more responsive than middle-aged cats, although the jury is still out as to why!
Here are two tracks that have been composed to be species-specific for cats. The first (Cozmo’s Air) is more of a chill-out number, with a pulse that has 1380 beats a minute, just like a purr; while the second (Spooks Ditty) is more upbeat and designed to mimic the sounds of birds to get your cat going.
See what your cats make of them. Our two didn’t take much interest in the first but their ears definitely pricked up for the second one!
Can my cat hear me coming home?
We’ve seen the amazing range of our cats’ hearing, but that’s not the only area in which they excel. Thanks to their large sound-collecting ears and special amplifying chambers in their skulls, cats are also very sensitive to quiet sounds. In some studies, they’ve been found to be able to pick up sounds that are about 5x quieter than a young adult human can hear.
It’s thought that this might be the explanation for another kitty ‘superpower’ that many owners have noticed – their uncanny ability to be waiting at the door for you when you get home from work, as if they’ve psychically sensed your arrival. What they actually seem to be doing is listening out for the telltale sound of your car arriving, your footsteps on the path or the characteristic way you rummage in your bag for your keys, and learning to associate that with the fact that you’re about to come through the door!
Can wearing a bell hurt a cat’s hearing?
Given our cats’ exceptional hearing abilities, you might be wondering whether it’s safe or fair to put a bell on their collars. This is obviously a question I’ve taken great interest in with our collars, and I’ve written a full and in-depth blog post on the subject (See: Should I Put A Bell On My Cat?). The headline is that although cats are able to detect quieter sounds than we can hear, studies have shown that their threshold for noise-related hearing damage is about the same as ours – and that the bells on cat collars fall very far below this range. As a result, putting a bell on your cat’s collar shouldn’t cause any damage to their hearing at all. If you’re at all curious, take a look at the article about the subject, it’s an intriguing read!
Thanks for joining us this week. If you try out the ‘cat music’ on your kitties I’d love to hear what you find! Let me know in the comments below, or join in the conversation over on Instagram or Facebook (both @supakitstore).
Until next week!
Cat vs. human hearing range, and how they use it to detect ultrasonic mouse chatter. The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat By John W. S. Bradshaw, Rachel A. Casey, Sarah L. Brown
Why cats hate vacuum cleaners and hairdryers. Stanford University, Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.
Cats prefer species-appropriate music. Snowdon, C. T., Teie, D. & Savage, M. (2015) Applied Animal Behaviour Science.