When a cat senses severe weather approaching, she might react in several ways, from fleeing to a small, dark cubby to frantically grooming her face. Such behaviors may seem strange, but they're been observed for centuries, since before 18th-century sailors looked to cats aboard their ships for weather predictions. Sailors once thought cats were causing storms through magic stored in their tails, but we now know that cats are able to perceive shifts in barometric pressure, also known as atmospheric or air pressure, before a storm hits.
What Are Cats Sensing?
For centuries, cats' behavior preceding major storms was considered supernatural, but we now know cats are reacting to the shifts in air pressure that come with approaching storms. Storms form when warm and cool air systems collide, forcing warm and moist air upward and the cooler, less dense air closer to the ground. As the warm air rises, it starts to cool, which creates condensation that can turn to clouds and storms. Because cats are natural predators with senses that allow them to be finely tuned into their environment, they easily detect such shifts in pressure.
Once a cat does detect an oncoming storm, her first instinct may be to flee or hide. This is a survival tactic, in which she tries to run to the safest place she can find. In lieu of making it out of her perceived danger zone, she might hide in an enclosed spot and ride out the storm. A mother cat may carry her kittens to safety before taking shelter herself.
Make a Prediction
While cats can't actually make weather predictions, their ability to sense impending weather changes served as a tool by fisherman and sailors from the 1700s until the early 20th century. Unusual behavior from the ship's resident cats -- such as attempting to jump ship, repeatedly pawing at their faces or carrying their kittens off the ship before sailing -- was interpreted by a ship's crew as a warning, and the sailors would plan ahead accordingly, sometimes refusing to set sail at all.
Wiping O'er His Whiskered Jaws
Certain old folklore sayings contain references examples of feline behavior before a storm, with many of them reference a specific action: a cat running her paw across the side of her face and ears. From mentions in Sir John Melton's 1620 tome 'Astrologaster' to a poem written by Charles Darwin's father, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, titled "Signs of Foul Weather" which states "Puss on the hearth, with velvet paws, sits wiping o'er his whiskered jaws, anecdotal evidence of this behavior abounds. According to Allen Moller of the National Weather Service, the action of a cat wiping her paws repeatedly over her face could be an indication that the low atmospheric pressure and electromagnetic changes caused by storms are causing her discomfort. By running her paws over her face and across her ears, she could be trying to relieve some of that unpleasant feeling.
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- Odyssey Marine Exploration: Strange at Sea: Maritime Myths and Superstitions
- NASA: How Do Hurricanes Form?
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