As anyone who has loved a cat can attest, there is something magical about felines. A unique combination of traits and behaviors — from their lamplike inquisitive eyes to that unusual sneer when they inhale an odor — makes cats a species unlike anything else on the planet. There are so many reasons they are so special. Here are seven of my favorite peculiarities of the feline form.

Cat Tongue Closeup

1. Cats are prickly.

When we say someone has a barbed tongue, we usually mean he is liable to dish out particularly sharp criticism. Although this could apply to cats in the metaphorical sense — after all, they don’t have the people-pleasing needs of, say, the average Golden Retriever — a cat’s tongue is literally covered with barbs.

The rear-facing protrusions serve several purposes, such as helping a cat lap water and pull that last bit of meat into his mouth. Most important, the barbs assist in a cat’s grooming by removing loose fur and bits of dead skin. Think of a cat’s tongue as her own permanent, in-house brush.

However, the tongue isn’t the only protruding organ covered in barbs. The male’s penis is as well. Known as penile spines, the keratinized structures rake the walls of the vagina when the male withdraws after sex, which is thought to stimulate ovulation. Yet another reason to get your female cat spayed!

2. Cats can right themselves when they’re falling.

The feline righting reflex is a fascinating ability that allows cats to orient themselves during a fall so that they land on their feet. Though the physics of the motions are beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that it is a marvel of angular momentum, inertia and a quick-functioning vestibular apparatus.

The minimum height of a fall for the reflex to kick in is around 12 inches, and a 1987 study of accidental falls published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association showed that some cats have survived falls from higher than seven stories, possibly because of their tendency to spread their bodies out to increase drag. Think of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, and you’ll get the picture.

3. Cats sleep about 16 hours a day.

Perhaps you thought it was just your cat who seemed to spend most of her day perched in the windowsill. No — it’s all of them. Being a carnivore is hard work, involving intense, brief expenditures of energy to catch prey, followed by long rest periods. Even though most domestic cats chase down nothing faster than a plastic bowl in order to eat, the sleep cycle has persisted.

4. Cats can have whiskers on their chins, cheeks, eyebrows and front legs.

Cat whiskers, known as vibrissae, are touch receptors. They serve multiple functions that help the cat’s body awareness, allowing him to gauge his position in space and whether he can squeeze through a narrow gap. Whiskers should never be cut; a cat without whiskers can become disoriented and less effective at navigating her environment.

Cat Eyes Closeup

5. Cats have superstar kidneys.

Perhaps owing to the species evolutionary history as desert dwellers, a healthy cat’s kidneys can create extraordinarily concentrated urine. This allows her to conserve as much moisture as possible from the food she ingests. It’s also one of the reasons your vet is so interested in your cat’s urine when she is sick: It contains a lot of information about the state of your cat’s kidney health.

6. Cats have incredible eyes.

Cats possess multiple sensory qualities that help make them agile predators, but their eyes are the feature that’s most enchanting. You’re not just imagining that wide-eyed look: Cats have the largest eyes of any mammal relative to their size. Their slit pupils can open wider, close smaller and change size faster than the circular pupils of many other mammals, allowing cats to see better in different levels of light. In addition, their night vision far exceeds our own. Cats can see with only one-sixth the amount of light humans can for two reasons: They have more rods in their retinas than we do, and they have a tapetum lucidum, which is a reflective layer of tissue at the back of the eye that creates that eerie glow so many of us wake up to in the dead of night when our cat is staring at us from across the room.

7. Cats smell with their mouths.

The vomeronasal organ, also called the Jacobson’s organ, is an olfactory structure located between the hard palate and nasal septum. The vomeronasal organ is used to analyze pheromones, which is an important way cats communicate. You may have observed your cat making an unusual grimace or sneer after taking a deep inhale of an odor. A kitty’s sneer is known as a flehmen response, and it’s how the cat directs particles to the vomeronasal organ for analysis.

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