Cat Upset by Unfamiliar Scent

CatChannel behavior expert Marilyn Krieger, CCBC, explains why a cat becomes upset when his favorite person suddenly smells different.

Q: My husband had to have some minor surgery yesterday that required both general anesthesia and a disinfectant rubdown. After he got home, he took a shower, but didn’t wash his hair.

Our cat, Mo, sleeps with us every night, sometimes burrowing under the covers when it’s cold. Mo loves my husband. My husband got up in the middle of the night, waking Mo. When he came back to bed, Mo wanted under the covers. Something suddenly triggered Mo, and he started meowing loudly then attacked my husband’s head and arm. Every time my husband started to move to protect himself, Mo attacked him again.

I turned on the lights and calmed Mo down, but as soon as I turned the lights out he attacked my husband’s head again. After the second attack I put Mo outside the bedroom. After a few hours, he appeared to be calm, so my husband opened the door for him. Mo jumped on the bed and started the weird vocalizing again, so I again removed him from the room.

Have you ever heard of anesthesia smell or a disinfectant smell triggering something like this? What can we do to help Mo become his usual sweet self?

A: Your assessment concerning Mo’s aggressive reaction to your husband is correct. He became confused and startled by your husband’s unfamiliar smell. Even though Mo recognized his favorite person, something about your husband wasn’t quite right. Your husband looked and sounded the same and the regular nighttime routine of cuddling with him hadn’t changed, but Mo didn’t recognize his smell. Cats have finely-tuned olfactory systems. Since Mo did not recognize your husband’s unpleasant and antiseptic smell he responded by attacking the source of the smell, which happened to be your husband’s head.

When situations like this occur, the best thing to do is to safely separate the cat from the source of his fear. Leave the cat alone, without any other animals or people around him until he calms down. This may take a few hours or a day.

Your husband can win Mo’s affection back. The first step is for your husband to take a shower, washing with the same soap he usually uses. While he is showering, you should pet and massage Mo with a clean towel. After thoroughly transferring Mo’s smell onto the towel, ask your husband to rub his head, arms and hands with the towel in order to transfer Mo’s smell on to himself. Your husband can then gently influence and win back Mo’s affections by sitting quietly near Mo and tossing him favorite treats.

The experience you describe isn’t unique to people. Often cats will respond aggressively to another cat buddy when they come home, smelling unfamiliar, after a visit to the veterinarian. This potentially violent situation can be avoided by petting the stay-at-home cat with a towel and then transferring his smell to the cat or person who just returned home.  

 Read more articles by Marilyn Krieger here>>

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