Many cat owners believe their pet has saved their life by alerting them to danger. We associate this special intelligence with dogs, but cats have an excellent understanding of their environment, too.
Cats have a heightened sense of smell and hearing, so they’re very attuned to their environment. This means they’ll often detect abnormal sounds and smells before humans do, such as gas leaks and fires. Cats can also detect human illness and read human emotions.
Because cats are so switched-on to their surroundings, some people believe that they have a “sixth sense.” A more likely explanation is that cats have five powerful senses. As we’ll explore, the belief that cats have a “sixth sense” is one of many spiritual beliefs we hold about cats.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Can Cats Sense When Something Is Wrong?
- 2 How Well Do Cats Hear?
- 3 How Strong Is a Cat’s Sense of Smell?
- 4 Can Cats Sense Illness?
- 5 Can Cats Sense Pregnancy?
- 6 Can Cats Sense Earthquakes?
- 7 Do Cats Show Empathy for Humans?
- 8 Can Cats Sense Human Anxiety?
- 9 Can Cats Sense Danger?
- 10 Cats and Symbolism
- 11 Is your Cat Trying to Tell You Something?
Can Cats Sense When Something Is Wrong?
Cats are highly sensitive creatures so that they can respond to environmental cues very quickly. If there’s a gas leak or fire inside your home, your cat will probably be the first one to know. Cats are also very capable of sensing:
- Carbon monoxide in the home
- Electrical faults inside the home
- Their owner is having a seizure or hyperglycemia attack
- Their owner has flu
- An earthquake or tsunami
- An intruder trying to break in
- A rodent or insect infestation inside the home
- An argument that’s about to happen (as they can pick up on a tense atmosphere)
Because cats are so good at recognizing danger, some people believe they have a “sixth sense.” In reality, cats have five senses, but their sense of smell and hearing are particularly strong.
How Well Do Cats Hear?
Cats have better hearing than most other mammals. Cats can detect an extensive range of frequencies (55 Hz to 79 kHz). This means that they can detect very high-pitched noises that humans and most dogs would be unable to hear.
Their large ears amplify the sounds up to 20 times louder than we would hear them. That’s why cats hate the vacuum cleaner.
Cats can move their outer ears (the pinnae) to determine which direction the noise is coming from. This makes them great detectives when it comes to processing threats in the environment.
Sounds Cats Can Hear that You Can’t
Cats can sometimes hear noises that humans cannot. This is why a cat’s ears may prick up in a seemingly silent room. For example, cats can hear:
- The ultrasonic calls made by rodents and bats.
- Fluorescent light bulbs – these emit very high-pitched sounds.
- Gas leaks – cats might hear as well as smell a gas leak.
- Very quiet noises outside the home (i.e., from intruders).
There have been stories of cats waking up humans in the night to alert them to a gas leak. Also, some cats avoid rooms with fluorescent bulbs in them. So, if your cat is behaving strangely, it could be due to the noises its hearing.
How Strong Is a Cat’s Sense of Smell?
If you’ve looked after cats, you’ll probably know how strong their sense of smell is. Cats go wild at even the slightest whiff of tuna, for example. This is because cats have more sensory receptors in their nose than many other animals.
Also, cats have a sensory receptor on the roof of their mouth that amplifies odors. If you ever see your cat lowering its head and letting her tongue hang out, it may be doing this to open up her airways, thereby allowing the sensory receptor on the roof of the mouth to detect whatever is in the environment.
Odors Your Cat Will Smell Before You Do
Scientists believe that a cat’s sense of smell is around 12 times stronger than a human’s, so you can rely on cats to sniff out danger. Cats are capable of detecting the following smells:
- Gas Leaks – A severe gas leak smells like rotten eggs and is hard for even humans to ignore. However, minor gas leaks can be missed by humans, but not by cats.
- Electrical Faults – Electrical issues sometimes smell like burning rubber. Humans can usually smell this odor, too, but it can be quite faint or intermittent. If your cat is spending time near one appliance (or avoiding certain appliances), it could be smelling an electrical fault.
- Urine – Unsurprisingly, cats can smell their own urine and the urine of other animals. If your cat stops using the litter box, consider how clean the litter box is. Though it might not smell to you, it may have traces of ammonia that is very strong and unpleasant for your cat.
- Mold – Mold smells like damp, rotting wood, though it’s not always easy for humans to detect. Cats appear sensitive to mold in the house, so they will probably avoid those areas.
- Dead Wild Animals – Cats will immediately detect any dead wild animals stuck inside the home such as rodents, raccoons, squirrels, and birds. Once they start to decompose, they will give off a noxious, unbearable smell, but cats will usually find them before this happens.
- Fire – Cats are excellent at detecting fires. There have been several stories of cats saving their owners from house fires.
Can Cats Sense Illness?
Cats seem to be able to comprehend human illness. For example, some cats can warn their owners when they are about to have an epileptic fit, while others seem able to detect the flu. According to the BBC, some cats can even sense death.
So, how can cats sense illness? Once again, it is probably due to their heightened sense of smell. When humans get sick, the chemicals in our bodies change ever so slightly, and cats may pick up on these subtle changes.
Also, when we start to feel sick, our facial expressions and body language changes. As we’ll explore, cats seem able to “read” human emotion, so it’s no real surprise they can sense illness.
Can Cats Sense Pregnancy?
Although there is no proof that cats cat sense pregnancy, there are anecdotal accounts of cats becoming much friendlier during pregnancy. Here’s why cats may be able to detect pregnancy:
- During pregnancy, you produce more progesterone, estrogen, and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). Cats may be able to smell these hormonal changes.
- You will probably become warmer and sweatier during pregnancy, and cats love to cuddle up to anything warm.
- You may be happier, more relaxed, and nurturing during pregnancy. In your ‘nurturing’ state, you might go out of your way to spend time with the cat, but then perceive the cat as being more friendly.
Can Cats Sense Earthquakes?
Before an earthquake or tsunami is about to strike, animals change their behavior. In the past, scientists observed the behavior of animals to help them predict natural disasters.
There is evidence to suggest that domestic cats can sense an earthquake. A cat would probably try to climb up as high as it could inside the home and may become outwardly aggressive. It may also appear very restless.
Other animals in the area would also act strangely. For example, dogs are likely to become aggressive, snakes and worms will emerge from the ground, and rodents and small mammals will try to climb as high as they can.
Do Cats Show Empathy for Humans?
There is certainly evidence to suggest that cats can understand basic human emotions (happiness, sadness, anxiety), but whether or not they can empathize with humans is a different matter.
In this study on Springer, cats were more likely to spend time with owners who looked happy compared to owners who looked angry. Cats can pick up on facial expressions and emotional cues.
Cats have probably learned that spending time with a happy owner earns them treats and attention, spending time with a sad owner might earn them extra cuddles, but spending time with an angry owner will be unpleasant.
This does not necessarily mean that cats sympathize with negative emotions. Instead, they might have learned how to live comfortably alongside humans, taking into account their emotional cues.
Some scientists would argue that cats cannot show empathy in the way dogs and elephants can, for example. Nevertheless, we are learning more about animal behavior each day, and it’s possible that cats have a deeper understanding of human experience than we currently give them credit for.
Can Cats Sense Human Anxiety?
Some people feel as if their cat knows when they are feeling anxious. As mentioned, cats do seem able to read emotional cues, so it’s entirely possible that they do recognize worried facial expressions and body language.
Cats may learn that when their owner is anxious, they are more likely to receive cuddles. After all, stroking a cat helps to reduce our blood pressure, and encourages us to feel calmer, so we are likely to seek out our cat when we are feeling stressed.
Can Cats Sense Danger?
All mammals have an inbuilt fight-or-flight response, so they are sensitized to danger. Because a cat’s senses are heightened, they are acutely aware of threats in the environment. You could say that cats sense danger much more effectively than humans.
Are Cats an Omen for Danger?
In some communities around the world, cats are considered to be symbols of danger or doom. Our tendency to see cats as omens may originate from the middle ages where cats were associated with witchcraft and mysticism.
Although cats have now been domesticated, some people still consider them an omen for danger. For example, when a cat changes his or her behavior, this is thought to signal a death in the family or a natural disaster.
A change in a cat’s behavior can sometimes be considered a “warning,” not because of anything mystical, but because cats have such strong senses and are in-tune with the world around them. This means they are often the first to recognize problems in the environment.
Cats and Symbolism
Throughout history, cats have held different symbolic meanings. Depending on the culture, cats been both revered and persecuted. Let’s review the various beliefs people have held about cats throughout the ages.
Ancient Egyptians and Cats
Some of our beliefs about cats originate from the ancient Egyptians. The ancient Egyptians adored cats and made a conscious decision never to harm them in any way. Cats were thought to embody special qualities such as justice, love, fertility, and power.
Middle Ages and Early Modern Period
In the middle ages, cats were linked to witchcraft and vanity, and were sometimes burned because of this. On the contrary, sailors of this period viewed cats as good luck and welcomed them onboard.
However, during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, owning a cat was considered to be a form of devil worship, and cats were considered to be ‘associates’ of the witches. To this day, some people hold superstitious beliefs about black cats.
Farming Communities Past and Present
In farming communities, carnivorous cats have been admired for their strength and power, according to the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. Rural communities were fearful of big cats, but they also considered them to be extraordinary creatures.
Some large cats such as kodkods were likened to vampires because they appeared to suck blood from their prey. This meant they were associated with bad luck. However, pumas were seen as magical, spiritual beings.
As humans, we tend to think of animals in symbolic or spiritual ways. This explains why, today, many people believe cats have a “sixth sense.”
Are Cats Spiritual Guardians?
Throughout history, people have believed in guardian angels, spiritual guardians, or spirit guides. A spiritual guardian is a protector, a messenger, and a supporter.
They help us to navigate through life and heal from our emotional pain. Because of humans’ close relationship with animals, some people believe their spirit guardian is an animal.
The concept of a spirit animal or totem is more common in indigenous cultures. These cultures would not necessarily interact with cats (especially domesticated cats), so cats have generally not been thought of as spirit animals.
However, this philosophy is becoming more widespread; some people do consider their spirit animal to be a domestic cat. According to Spiritanimal, cats symbolize the following traits and values:
- Patience and calmness
- An ability to care for themselves, assertiveness
- Make time for themselves
- Can heal themselves physically and emotionally (purring)
- Sociable but not reliant on others
If a cat is your spirit animal, you may take inspiration from their natural traits and apply these to your own life. For example, you might be inspired to become independent and self-serving like a cat. Alternatively, you may try to become more adventurous and let go of fear.
Is your Cat Trying to Tell You Something?
Cats cannot tell us about their experiences, but we can look closely at their behavior to try and decode it. If your cat has been acting strangely, they may be trying to tell you something. Here are some behaviors to watch out for:
- There have been stories of cats standing at the sight of a gas leak and meowing loudly to get the attention of their owner.
- There have been cases of cats waking their owners in the night due to a fire or other emergency, so don’t assume your cat is vying for your attention if they wake you in the night.
- If there is a carbon monoxide leak in the home, cats will probably feel the effects before you do. They may experience shortness of breath and lethargy. Cats may also attempt to go outside and behave strangely while outside (perhaps to encourage you to go outside).
- Many owners find their cat avoids them when they are coming down with the flu.
- Cats seem to be more affectionate to pregnant women and may spend more time cuddled up to a pregnant woman’s stomach.
- If a cat is avoiding one particular room, you should investigate why. The high-pitched sounds from fluorescent lights or the smells from electrical faults could be bothering them.
- If your cat is avoiding the litter box, the box (or surrounding area) may need a deep clean, even if you can’t smell any offensive odors yourself.
Can Cats Predict the Future?
Cats will recognize something before humans do – whether that be a fire, a gas leak, or even a pregnancy. Does this mean they can predict the future? Not in a magical or mystical sense.
Cats don’t have a “sixth sense,” but they do have five keen senses. When we live alongside them, we come to realize that cats are much better at reading the environment than we are. In truth, cats are inquisitive, switched-on animals that help to keep our homes safer.
So, although it might seem as if cats have the power to predict the future, they’re probably just really good at interpreting the present.