Perhaps smell is not the cat’s sense that is most talked about, and more importance is given to vision or hearing. However, for felines smell is vital to communicate and relate to their environment. Discover one of the most complex and mysterious senses of cats and some tips to keep in mind for their well-being.
Cats have a much more developed sense of smell than ours, which allows them to explore the environment in a way that can be difficult to understand from the beginning. The reason is that thanks to their olfactory system, cats analyze not only the smells that we perceive, but also other chemical signals, called pheromones.
The latter are much more than smells. In fact, they are messages that are transmitted between individuals of the same species and that are captured both in the olfactory mucosa and in a special organ, called the vomero-nasal, which is located between the palate and the nostrils.
Cats produce pheromones in different parts of their body, such as around the mouth, in the temporal region, on the cheeks, between the foot pads, at the base of the tail, and near the mammary glands.
On the other hand, these pheromones do not all have the same function. Some serve to mark the territory, others have sexual functions, or to appease and to transmit warning messages. For example, those that cats deposit when they scratch with their nails or when they rub their faces on the corners of furniture, on doors or other individuals who live at home, serve both to communicate with other cats and to recognize their environment and feel safe.
The presence of pheromones or odors that pose a threat to the cat or the inability to leave its reassuring olfactory marks in the environment can cause the manifestation of inappropriate behaviors such as urine marking, inappropriate scratching or can favor the development of diseases related to stress (Ellis et al., 2013). For this reason, special attention should be paid not to alter the olfactory and chemical signals that a cat deposits in its environment, and also when new smells are introduced into the cat’s environment.
To avoid unwanted situations with our cats, it is advisable to keep these tips in mind:
- Leave at the disposal of the cat suitable scratchers placed in strategic places in the house so that it can deposit its scent there by scratching with its nails, instead of scratching inappropriate surfaces.
- Avoid cleaning the areas where the cat has made facial marking (Ellis et al., 2013) or at least not continuously remove these marks that contribute to generating their sense of security, taking into account that cats tend to rub mainly on doors and furniture corners.
- Clean the places where the cat sleeps one by one. So that there is always at least one place to rest that has the smell of the cat (Ellis et al., 2013) and, in general, it is advisable to clean the different parts of the cat’s territory at different times, thus guaranteeing the presence throughout moment of significant odors for him (Clark and King, 2008).
- Pay attention to the use of disinfectants and other cleaning products that can significantly alter the olfactory and chemical information that the cat associates with a familiar and safe environment, such as the trace of its own body marks (Clark and King, 2008).
Tips # 1. To respect the delicate sense of smell of the cat, it is preferable to avoid the use of scented litters.
- Spray new items with the synthetic analogue of cat facial pheromones spray. These pheromones simulate the natural pheromones that cats deposit on objects when rubbed with their faces and have a relaxing effect when the cat is in new or stressful situations (Griffith et al., 2000). Alternatively, new objects can be rubbed with a cloth that has been rubbed on the cat’s cheeks during positive interaction with people (Ellis et al., 2013). In addition, in potentially stressful situations such as moving, changes in the furniture of the house or the arrival of new animals, it may be useful to also resort to the use of synthetic facial pheromones available in a plug-in diffuser.
Tips # 2. The use of synthetic facial pheromones can be an especially important environmental enrichment tool for fearful and anxious cats (Mills, 2005; Pageat and Gaultier, 2003).
- It is not advisable to introduce external and unknown odors into the most intimate space of the cat, for example, leaving the shopping bags at the entrance of the house (Ellis et al., 2013).
Tips # 3. Exposing a kitten to new smells in a positive and gradual way helps them become more tolerant of new smells once they are adults (Ellis et al., 2013).
- Never punish the cat for leaving its scent marks on its territory (Heath, 2005).
- In a move or at the time of being adopted by its new family, it is important that the cat has at its disposal objects that have its smell and that come from its old territory, such as its bed (Ellis et al., 2013). This strategy can reduce the stress level also when taking the cat to the vet.
If you want to know more about the use of smells to enrich the cat’s environment, see our article: Does the cat at home need sensory stimulation?