The athletic nature of the cat depends as much on its muscular system as on the underlying skeleton. There are more than 500 different muscles attached to the cat’s skeleton, with the muscles in the neck and shoulder area, as well as the hind limbs, being the most well-developed. They serve to provide the cat with pace, enabling it to run fast and jump, while those in the shoulder area also assist its ability to climb.
What other types of muscle are there?
Smooth muscle is associated with the body organs and is vital to the cat’s well-being. It contracts for long periods, as with heart muscle, whereas skeletal muscles tend to be used more in short bursts.
When were the movements of the cat first unravelled? The way in which cats use their muscles to move was first revealed by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who published a series of pictures in 1887. These showed that cats start to run using the legs on one side of their body first, followed by the other.
The way in which the muscles and bones have developed in members of the cat family gives a clear indication of their lifestyles. The cheetah, which spends almost all of its time on the ground, has narrow and deep muscle attachments on its shoulder blades. In the leopard, however, the same area is shallow and broad, so that the muscles can be used more effectively for climbing rather than sprinting. In all cases, skeletal muscles are paired, so that they work together, rather than in isolation.
HOW CATS MOVE
When a cat jumps, it also relies on its muscles to ensure a safe landing, absorbing the impact through its front legs. As it starts to leap, the cat stretches out at first, with the muscles of the back being very flexible. The muscle masses in the hind limbs always provide the thrust for the forward
movement. Less obviously, the tail muscles are important at this stage. They provide balance, with cats always jumping with their tails up for this reason. But when chasing prey on the ground, the tail is used as a counterbalance. The muscles in the tail then help the cat to retain its balance as it turns in tight circles.
- When a cat is relaxed, its claws are hidden from sight. When a cat wants to extend them, it does so by muscular control.
- Thanks to their powerful muscular system, cats can jump over four and a half times their body length, and land safely.
- The muscular forequarters of leopards are strong enough to allow them to drag prey weighing more than themselves off the ground and up into trees, where it will be out of the clutches of most scavenging predators.