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Smell: A Cat’s First Language

January 25, 2012

When we think of language, we think of words, chit chat.

But a cat’s first language isn’t vocal or even body language — it’s smell.

Photo courtesy ecparker

A cat’s dependence on his sense of smell begins at kittenhood. Even before a kitten can see, he relies on his nose and sense of touch to find his mother’s nipple — the same one for each feeding. Similarly, the mother cat recognizes her kittens by their smell and her smell on them.

While humans don’t necessarily think of smell as the most important sense (I’m sure many of us would rank sight, hearing and touch above it), the ability to smell things actually plays a large role in a cat’s survival. That’s because cats have about twice as many smell-sensitive cells in their noses, and their sense of smell is about 14 times stronger than ours.

As a result, it’s not a surprise that the sense of smell plays a big role in how cats communicate with one another.

Each cat has his own scent, and that scent comes from glands located on his chin, lip corners, temples and base of his tail. Any time the cat washes or rubs against something, he’s spreading his scent. So every time your cat greets you and rubs his head, side or tail against you, he’s marking you as his.

To create a communal smell, a cat will mark areas of your home, furniture and family members with his scent.  Cats who live together will rub each other to share their scent.

Photo courtesy mediadeo

Consequently, whenever you bring in the scent of another cat on your clothing or shoes, your cat may become curious or insecure — this “new cat” — or at least his scent — has invaded your cat’s home and territory.

Similarly, new feline family members may at first feel insecure in your home because it is marked with your cat’s scent. The new cat realizes he’s in another’s territory. This is why behaviorists suggest that you swap blankets or towels used by your cats so they get used to one another’s scent before they’re officially introduced to one another.

When cats really want to smell something closely, they’ll often do something called gapping or flehming. This is when your cat wrinkles his lips, opens his mouth a bit and let’s his tongue out — it almost looks like a grimace. As funny as this face may be, it’s actually very useful. Your cat has a scent organ called a vomeronasal (or Jacobson’s organ) on the roof of his mouth, and by making this face he’s actually able to smell more clearly.

By better understanding how important the sense of smell is to our cats, perhaps we can all better understand their behavior. Since they’re so sensitive to smells, we can make conscious decisions to make life a bit less stressful for them — whether that means putting their favorite blanket on a new piece of furniture so it doesn’t smell so foreign or remembering to change our clothes after volunteering at a local shelter.

Have you noticed how important the sense of smell is to your cat? Have you ever noticed your cat gapping or fleming? Please share in the comments!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2012 8:17 am

    Biff is very nosy, he engages in fleming often, checking which of the neighbourhood cats I’ve met when out. He’s tolerant of them but keeps himself to himself.
    Merlin loves to share his scent with everyone and does headbonks with great enthusiasm to cats, humans, toy animals alike [so long as they are HIS; he’s shy of strangers]. He is now big enought to knock his sisters and Jasper flying with the enthusiasm of his kisses.

  2. Denise Asbury permalink
    December 6, 2015 1:49 pm

    My Elsie has severe smell sensitives to many things. But with food this is an issue in getting her to eat food. And with litter, how dare I add too much fresh litter to her pan. This sensitivity stops me from being able to totally give her new litter. I have to add a little each time I scoop her pan or else she will seek another area for her toilet. Her tactile senses are so sensitive that she avoids standing on or touching certain rugs, blankets and other fabrics. When I am cuddling her I occasionally see her head twitching. The only human similarity I can relate to is seeing a drug addicted newborn with these sensitives. Any comments would be appreciated.

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