Cats' sense of smell defines life for your cat. We used to believe dogs relied more on scent than cats, but current research indicates felines are incredibly scent oriented. Think of your cat’s individual smell as a feline nametag. For cats, scent determines sexual status, and is used to communicate, to interact socially, and to identify territory.
To put this in perspective, people average five to 20 million scent-analyzing cells lining their nose. Cats have about 67 million. (The king of scenting pets, the Bloodhound, has 300 million.) Although people haven’t the “equipment” to understand cat smells, we can learn to recognize and understand behaviors prompted by scent.
Cat Smell and Scratching
Cats have scent glands between their toes in the pads of their feet. When they scratch an object, that not only creates visible marks, it also leaves behind their personal scent. When cats want to signal ownership, they pointedly scratch objects in the presence of another cat (or dog) they want to impress. Even declawed cats go through the motions. Prime paw-scented targets include any real estate that has high importance, such as near doorways, litter box, sleeping areas and the like.
Since clawing serves as a communication tool for the cat, it is impossible to prevent. The best way to deal with claws is to provide claw training and offer your new pet a legal claw target so he’ll leave your valuables alone.
Cat Smell and Bunting
The toes are only one place that boasts scent glands. Cats have similar scent glands in the skin of the chin, lips, cheeks, forehead, and tail. The behavior of rubbing the head and body against people, other animals, and objects is called bunting.
Bunting spreads your kitten’s signature odor upon whatever he rubs, and this “sharing of the scent” identifies family members and safe objects with familiar odor. Bunting is a huge compliment when Kitty head-bumps you, or rubs your ankles and twines his tail about your leg. He’s marking you as part of his family, a favorite part of his territory or property.
Studies indicate that specific pheromones produced by cheek glands have a calming influence on cats. They’ve been artificially reproduced in the Feliway products, and these pheromones identify territory as safe. Another pheromone fraction produced by the cheek glands identifies other cats as friends.
Action Communicates, Too
Face rubbing is thought to be a subtle sign of deference with the subordinate kitty approaching and bumping/rubbing against the more dominant pet or person. This also places vulnerable eyes within range of tooth and claw, and so head bumps and cheek rubs to your face (or another cat’s face) should be considered a sign of friendship and great trust.
Nose touches and hip leans are considered by your kitten to be gestures of friendship. You may notice Kitty cheek-rub as a greeting behavior, too, after you come home from work. He’s not only sniffing your shoes or purse to “read” where you’ve been, but also bunts to freshen the “family scent” and so welcome you home.
Social grooming—that is, kittens grooming each other or even you!—is also thought to figure into this mechanism of sharing familiar scent. You’ll know your kitten considers you, the dog, or the other cats a true part of the family when he wants to clean you.
Cat Smell and Urine Spray
Urine contains more specialized chemicals (pheromones), which will tell other cats the sexual status of the kitty that left the urine. Male and female cats crouch to urinate and release the urine over a flat surface—the litter box. When a cat wants to use the urine to mark territory, the posture is different. The spraying cat stands erect, backs up to the target, holds the tail straight up with just the tip quivering a bit, and releases the urine backwards against vertical surfaces like trees, stones, or your wall or furniture.
Urine from an intact male cat has a particularly strong odor that can be hard to eliminate when used to mark territorial boundaries inside your house. The pheromones in the urine announce to the other cats that King Tom rules this area, and the spraying helps suppress the sexual behavior of less dominant cats that venture into the territory. Intact females who spray tend to do so to announce their receptiveness to the feline Romeos in the area.
Neutering greatly reduces the incidence of territorial spraying. Altered cats of either sex, though, may resort to spraying behavior and hit or miss litter box behavior when they feel insecure. Stress can prompt Kitty to spread his own familiar, comforting scent around the room. In these instances, spraying acts as a kind of stress-buster for the bothered cat.