Have you ever watched your cat and wondered why have they stopped to sniff intently at that object in the garden, or why do they sometimes look like they are trying to taste the air? These are both normal cat behaviours that are important parts of cat communication. Cats are only able to perform these behaviours because they have a well-developed sense of smell allowing them to detect subtle scents. They frequently use their sense of smell, combined with other senses, when communicating with other cats.
What senses will my cat use in their daily life?
When going about their daily life, cats will use many different senses to gather information about their environment. They can get a lot of different information about other cats that have been in the area, without having to meet the cat. This can be useful for allowing a cat to avoid conflict with another individual, or can enable a cat to find a mate if they are looking to breed.
The senses a cat will commonly use include;
- Scent – Cats can detect scent either by sniffing or by performing the flehmen response (this will be discussed below).
- Sight – Visual cues are important for direct cat to cat interaction as this enables them to detect body language signals shown by the other cat. Cats will also use sight to explore their surroundings from a distance, often from a high vantage point.
- Touch – Cats will investigate close objects by using their paws. They will also use touch when interacting with other cats and with people, often through rubbing their body over the other individual.
- Taste – Cats may lick objects so that they can gain information about its flavour using taste buds located in their mouth, though unlike us, it seems that they are not able to detect sweet flavours.
How does my cat detect different scents?
Cats have a very well developed sense of smell and they can detect subtle scents through two different methods
- flehmen response
Sniffing is an effective method that cats use to enable them to detect scents that we would not be able to smell, due to our poorly developed sense of smell. These scents can be from the result of direct contact with other cats, people or objects and you may also see your cat sniff the air, allowing them to detect subtle scents in the environment.
The act of sniffing brings the air inside the nose and into the nasal cavity, where there are a high number of sensitive olfactory (smell) receptors located that are able to detect scents. This is why a cat’s sense of smell is so refined, as they have a much higher number of olfactory receptors compared to people, allowing them to detect a greater range of scents.
The Flehmen Response
The flehmen response is a term that is used to describe the action of cats ‘tasting the air’. Alongside cats, other animals including horses may be seen to use this response. This tasting the air action is a highly adapted way of detecting subtle chemical markers called pheromones. These pheromones are scents that only come from other cats and by using the sensitive flehmen response cats can detect pheromones without the other cat being present, while still learning important information about this other cat.
When performing the flehmen response, cats are using a sensitive scent structure called the vomeronasal organ, which is otherwise known as the Jacobson organ. This structure is found above the roof of the mouth behind the cat’s top front teeth, so to get the air to reach the vomeronasal organ the cat will have a facial expression that makes them look like they are tasting the air. If you see your cat performing the flehmen response then their mouth will be slightly open and their lips parted to allow the air to get to the roof of the mouth, often giving them a gaping expression.
How does my cat use scent to communicate?
When cats detect scent through the flehmen response, they are detecting signals from other cats that have been released in a number of ways including:
- Urine marking/spraying – This is where urine is deposited up a vertical surface and while we do not fully understand the reasons behind urine marking, other cats are likely to be able to determine information about the cat that has left the urine mark.
- Scratching – When cats scratches an object or surface, as well as marking the object they will also be leaving a scent that other cats can detect.
- Touch – Cats will often rub against other cats that they are friendly with, as well as people. This results in a sharing of scent which is common within a familiar group of cats and this allows each member to quickly identify other members of the group.
Information that cats can get from these signals include;
- Boundaries of territories
- Identifying other friendly cats within their group
- Identifying unfamiliar/unfriendly cats
- Seeking a mate for breeding if a cat is entire (not neutered)
How scent is used to reduce stress in cats
From our understanding of how our cats use scent to communicate, this has enabled the development of a number of cat-specific synthetic pheromones such as Feliway and Felifriend. These products release chemical signals that your cat will detect by using the flehmen response, which help reduce their level of stress and induce a calm response. They can be used in any situation that causes your cat to be stressed and can be used long term if needed. If you would like to find out more about using synthetic pheromones to reduce stress for your cat then speak to your vet! They will be able to discuss each option with you.
Scent communication in cats is very complex and we do not have a full understanding of how cats use scent. However, we do know that it is an important part of the way cats communicate with each other. By starting to understand why our pet cats may be performing a certain behaviour, such as the flehmen response, we can start to appreciate how cats interact socially and the importance of the particular behaviour shown.