How Does a Cat Use Its Nose?

The world of a cat is the world of scents and odors and its sense of smell is of paramount importance. A cat uses scent to sniff out food, mates, enemies, and to seek out his own territory, which he has previously marked.

Surprisingly, perhaps, a cat has a poor sense of taste. We have 9,000 taste buds, while a cat has only 473. A cat’s eating experience relies upon smell just as much, if not more, than taste. Its sense of smell is fourteen times better than ours. When we walk past a hot dog stand or fish & chip shop we can smell hot dogs or fish & chips. When a cat walks past, it can smell sausages, various sauces, salt, pepper, mustard, vinegar, potatoes, bread, fish, etc, thus separating the different smells.

Cats and Food

Kittens are blind at birth, so they will use their sense of smell to locate mother and to latch onto a teat. From then on, a cat’s nose will lead it to food, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. Cats with a reduced olfactory sense (usually a product of aging) may go “off” their food (taste is associated with smell). As with any cat, warming the food will release more of an aroma, enhancing the cat’s ability to enjoy its food more.

Cats have become accustomed to eating tinned cat food straight from the fridge, but they much prefer their food warm, as it would be if they had freshly killed it in the wild, so warm up cat food before serving to your feline companion.

Locating a Mate

Female cats “in heat” exude a powerful sexual pheromone that can be scented by a male from great distances. If you’ve ever been entertained by choruses of lusting Toms outside your home while your un-spayed female cat tries every means of escape, you’ll appreciate this phenomenon. Female cats can also scent out a preferred mate by his territorial markings.

Cats and Territory

Male cats mark their territory by spraying urine or marking with pheromones from glands in their face and feet when they rub against objects. They will roam their territorial boundaries frequently, sniffing at their markings, and reapplying when the odor diminishes or an interloper has left his own mark. Other male cats will smell the markings and either respect the territory, or attempt to take it over by introducing their own scent markings.

Cat Behavior Issues

Researchers have been ‘nosing around’ for new ways to help alter unwanted behavior patterns in companion and farm animals, and found that the answer was right under their nose.

Animal behaviorists have begun to have a larger variety of options to influence unwanted pet behaviors by using synthetic pheromones. Pheromones are chemical substances produced by an animal to serve as a stimulus for behavioral responses in others of the same species. Pheromones are secreted by glands (including anal sacs) and are found in saliva, feces, and urine. Their purpose is to induce specific reactions (behavioral and emotional), including sexual behaviors, aggression, fear-related behaviors, and avoidance reactions.

Olfactory information (smell) plays a much more important role in some species than we may imagine; for cats it is extremely important. If you have more than one cat you may have noticed that if one cat goes to the vet, the cat who stayed home may hiss and swat at the returning cat. This is because the cat who left now smells different; it looks the same, but the sense of smell is more important than visual cues in this instance. Also, have you ever noticed that a cat does not respond to its reflection in a mirror? This is because there’s no smell to identify the reflection as another cat (your cat won’t recognize that it’s looking at itself).

When cats scratch on a surface, they are not only ‘sharpening their claws,’ they are leaving their scent. Their scent is a cue for them to return periodically and scratch at the same spot, leaving more of their scent. Removing the original scent, using an enzyme cleaner for instance, is usually the only way to break repeated scratching at one spot.

The vomeronasal organ (also called Jacobson’s organ) plays an essential role in olfactory communication in all species. Located in the roof of the mouth, this organ consists of two, fluid filled sacs that connect to the nasal cavity via fine ducts. To facilitate the perception of pheromones, especially sexual odors, most species conduct a behavioral process called The Flehmen Response whereby they lift their upper lip and open their mouths to increase the opening of the ducts connecting the Jacobson’s organ with the nasal cavity.

Research has focused on different applications of synthetic pheromones that may affect behavior of various species, including insects, farm animals, cats, dogs, and even humans. Examples include:

  • The application of sexual attractants on insect traps to control pests
  • The use of pheromones to facilitate artificial insemination in pigs, since the compounds contained in the saliva of boars induce a reflex in sows to stand still

In cats, a compound is available for the treatment of unwanted urine marking behavior. This substance, found in the commercial product ‘Feliway,’ is a synthetic analogue of a pheromone secreted by the facial glands of cats. This pheromone tends to have a soothing effect. (You may have seen your cat rubbing ist chin on furniture or a doorway; the cat is rubbing this pheromone onto that surface.) If ‘Feliway’ is applied in households, the frequency of urine marking can be reduced significantly. Additionally, this substance has shown a calming effect if applied in cat carriers or in new or unknown environments into which the cat has been introduced.

Mammalian Vomeronasal Organ

The diagram shows the position and connections of the Vomeronasal Organ in a rodent (hamster) to illustrate the general organization in mammals. The diagram shows the left Vomeronasal Organ located within a longitudinal bulge along the base of the left side of the nasal septum. There is a paired organ on the right side (not shown). Vomeronasal sensory neurons are located in a sensory group of cells, resembling the main cell-group that provide the sense of smell but separated from it, lining an elongated cavity (lumen) inside the thin bone capsule that encloses the organ. A narrow duct, opening onto the floor of the nasal cavity just inside the nostril is the only access for stimulus chemicals. Mammalian vomeronasal sensory neurons detect specific chemicals, some of which may act as chemical-communication signals (pheromones) from other individuals of the same species, and trigger the generation of electrical impulses that carry the information to the brain. The Vomeronasal Organ is not the exclusive chemo-sensory organ capable of detecting pheromones. There are some examples where the main olfactory system (sense of smell) mediates pheromone communication.

There are three hypotheses on the exact function of the Vomeronasal Organ. The first is to perceive the smell of food; the second, as a “sixth sense” to help predict unusual occurrences, e.g., earthquake, volcanic eruption; and the third is for perception of sexual odors – pheromones.

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