I don’t remember the first time I offered up something random for my cat to sniff. Maybe I just instinctively knew that smells are important to cats. While we human beings are highly visual in nature, cats use their sense of smell to gather information about their surroundings. And when it comes to the workings of kitty noses, our feline friends have humans and dogs beat. Their sense of smell is 14 times stronger than ours, and with 200 million olfactory receptors, they can smell things even dogs can’t. Plus they have that curious thing called a vomeronasal, or Jacobson’s organ, which they use for strong odors such as other cat’s pee – pungent smells that may repel us humans but which a cat finds intriguing.
The bottom line: if everything smells right to your cats, all is well in their world. I figured this out as a tween, and every time I brought home something new, whether it was a piece of clothing, a notebook or lunch, I would hold it up to my grey and white tuxedo cat, Michaela, to sniff. She never turned down the chance to smell anything new and unknown. To this day, I still do it with our three cats and it never ceases to delight me. Hand something unknown to a person and they will scrutinize it with their eyes. Wave it in front of a cat and their little noses will go to work like a bunny’s. If it’s something stinky like a used sock or valerian root (a marvelous kitty intoxicant, if you can stand the smell), you might see them grimace in that peculiar way that means they are putting their Jacobson’s organ to work.
I’ve found that understanding the significance of scent for cats has strengthened my understanding of them and my relationship to them. Sparkle becomes fiercely aggressive with the other cats if they have been to the vet, and it all comes down to the smell. So when Binga or Boodie goes to the clinic for a procedure (they both have needed dentals in the past couple of years), when I pick them up, I toss one of Sparkle’s favorite blankets in the carrier so they pick up her scent on the trip home. And then when we arrive, before I let them out, I rub them down with catnip. I rub catnip on Sparkle too. It’s done a lot to lessen the post-vet readjustment time and for me, personally, it has worked better than using pheromones, another scent-based remedy to bring peace to feuding felines.
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The acute feline sense of smell has worked against me too. Harlot, the cat before Sparkle, was intensely possessive and territorial. She did not like other cats invading her property and she did not like me mingling with other cats. She was intensely unhappy for a few months when my boyfriend and I made friends with a neighbor’s neglected black cat, to the extent that we would have him over for visits. Even though we only had him inside when Harlot was out patrolling elsewhere, she could smell he had been there. That was bad enough, but what was even worse was that he would snuggle up with me while I was reading. I would hang out with the neighbor cat for a while, then put him out, and Harlot would show up a little while later – and the first thing she would do was very loudly sniff me all over. And if she smelled that cat on me, she would growl angrily. It was as bad as having an insanely jealous boyfriend. In Harlot’s case, I don’t think rubbing myself with catnip would have helped.
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Want to create a better bond with your cat? Share smells – but make sure they are pleasant ones.