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Cat sense organs: sense of touch

Whiskers are whiskers. No whiskers - no cat. But admiring at our pet's whiskers we rarely understand how they are important for our cat. Not only for beauty, of cause but for an everyday life. After all whiskers, or as more correct, vibrissae are the sense organ of touch, at least an important part of this organ. They inform an animal about a direct contact with objects that are quite close. And this objects include not only chairs, bowls and pans that are of special interest for it, but hands of its' masters (and strangers also), mice, birds another prey as well, and finally dogs with whom they are mostly in strained relationship. During love period sense of touch helps establish relations between partners, and during childhood - help kittens communicate with their mother, and vice versa. In one word, whiskers-vibrissae by means of direct touch inform a cat about objects situated at the length of its' whiskers.

Of cause, a cat may get information about these objects just touching them with a fur or skin, but it is more advantageous to contact this objects a little bit earlier. It's clear that when a cat touches its' prey in advance with whiskers, it gets to know about the prey beforehand and can quicker, though not very much, may take a decision. When it does this slightly ahead of, for example, mouse running away, this very moment provides a success.

Whiskers are very useful for cat in many other life situations; for example, when it squeezes through a narrow slit and is not very sure if this slit is accessible to her. Whiskers in wild cats do a priceless service while sneaking up to a prey when a cat has to make its' way through thick and difficult bush.

What the whiskers-vibrissae are, that give a cat such a unique look. These are perceptive hairs that one can see on the upper lip of his pet. They look like long thick rods conic-shaped, straight or slightly bent. Special muscles provide their mobility and make movements of whickers a little bit funny. Numbers of whiskers on the right and left upper lip may by about 12 or more, and at that time they are situated in four horizontal rows.

The main peculiarity of these rods-vibrissae is elasticity, provided by canonic contraction by their ending, as well as their subtle texture. From above they are covered with multisided or rounded cells that adjoin each other and form a thick layer - cuticle. On the contrary, cells that constitute the core are settled more loosely and there are interstices between them. If the reader have ever been a fisherman and dealt with a telescopic fishing rod then he will easily imagine the subtle texture of the perceptive filament and the main principle of its' functioning. Every vibration caused by touch of its' tip is directly passed on the base of fishing rod where your hand is.

On the base of vibrissa there's a very interesting formation called root which structure is represented in a picture. Here around the reinforced tip of hair that is in the superficial layer of skin, is the blood lacuna and many sensitive nerve endings, so called, Paccini corpuscles. Blood lacuna represents a little blood bubble that is called also sinus. Every vibration of tip of the filament is passed on its' root and is perceived by sensitive nerve endings and immediately inform the brain.

Thus, vibrissae play a role of sensitive antennas triggering a complicated mechanism of nerve endings stimulation - sensitive, or Paccini corpuscles. Hydraulic mechanisms provide a high sensibility of these corpuscles. Since the base of a filament is plunged in blood sinus, all vibrations, arrived here from the top (the external rod of a filament), are intensified. Vibrations localize themselves and stimulate certain Paccini corpuscles. Due to this a tactile center of brain gets the information in what part of environment that surrounds a cat, important living or inanimate objects are situated.

However until now we been talking about only one kind of tactile filaments-vibrissae, called sine, as well. As a matter of fact, they are situated in quantity on body and first of all on head of a cat. Besides so-called whiskers, groups of these filaments, though much shorter, than whiskers are situated on the chin, up the eyes and in the area of cheeks. Moreover, such filaments grow on ankles playing an important role during hunting nimble preys. At the same time, hairs growing on other parts of body have certain touch sensitivity, though not so perfect. For instance, look at the coat of your pet and you'll easily notice single hairs jut out from even surface of fur that also perform perceptive functions. Of cause they are softer than vibrissae and are not so sensitive but they also help a cat determine which region of body is touched.

Thus many sensitive "antennas" that allow a cat to orient itself in the environment revealing dangerous and good contacts are situated on the cat body. In contrast to distant orientation that hearing, vision and smell provide, sense of touch acts during direct contact solely and supply a so-called close short-range orientation. And therefore when take care of your pet don't improve its' appearance cutting away or, moreover, pulling out bent vibrissae: at this you hamper much its' abilities to orient itself in the environment.

Valeriy ILYICHEV, Doctor of Biology, professor
Translated by Tatiana Karpova (Moscow)
(MSU, Biology faculture, Dep. zoology and ecology).