Cats on the Prowl

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

mice. Over time the cats became domesticated, at least as much as a cat can be tamed.

Domesticated cats arrived in the New World on the Mayflower. In the mid 1700s, large numbers of cats were imported to rid the colonies of an abundance of black rats that was causing disease and eating grain. Today cats are still kept for their mousing ability, especially in rural areas, but their big draw is as companions--gentle souls with whom to share one's home and life.

Because they are so independent, cats are a perfect pet for busy people. As a result, the number of cats kept as pets has grown rapidly, surpassing the number of dogs in the 1980s. U.S. Census records from 1990 show that 60 million cats are kept as pets, up from 50 million in 1980. Millions more are feral. Coleman, Temple and Craven estimate that the combined number of pet and free-ranging cats in the United States is more than 100 million.

Despite 7,000 years of living among people, the kitten that sits on your window sill carries traits similar to its wild relatives. That fuzzy, affectionate, yet aloof, ball of fur sharing your home is one of the most efficient hunters in the animal kingdom. A muscular build is a key to their success.

More than 500 muscles give cats the bursts of power they need to pounce upon their prey. Strong muscles in the lower back, hind legs, neck and shoulders help cats leap up to five times their own height. Muscles, along with ligaments, hold the spinal column together, allowing the cat to move with great flexibility. The shoulder joint, too, is flexible, which helps the cat grab divebombing birds that are protecting nests and fledglings.

Muscles help with their keen sense of hearing. Using the more than 25 muscles in its ears, cats can quickly turn each ear individually 180 degrees in any direction to pinpoint the exact location of prey. Their ears are so sensitive, they can hear a mouse walk across a floor.

Other senses, like sight and touch, also aid their hunting ability. Cats can't see in complete darkness, but it may seem that way. Because of the curvature of their cornea, cats need one-sixth as much light to see as people do. As a result, cats can see movement and objects at dusk and dawn. In the dead of night, with no available light, cats can

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