Feline Sense Series: Nosing AroundPublished December 15, 2008
While the human world uses all of its senses to successfully live in the world around them, the animal kingdom is quite different. Different animals hone in on certain senses and use them primarily as a tool to survive.
For example, the expression, "Blind as a bat," is merely a myth - although they cannot see that well in the dark, they can indeed distinguish objects in their flight path. Their main sensory organ is their ears, which of course, are very large in proportion to their body. What does this have to do with cats? It's merely an example of how each animal has its own distinct way of determining its position in the world around them.
As for the felis catus - the scientific name for domesticated or house cats - all of the feline senses are rather acute, but their sense of smell is perhaps its main source for identifying individuals, objects and prey in its surroundings. Although cats have those big, oftentimes bulging eyes which seem too big for their face, that tiny little nose has approximately 200 million odor-sensitive cells while humans only have five million which, of course, is a large distinction between cats and their human owners. They live in a world completely separate from humans. While a person's sense of smell practically acts as an insignificant role, the world of the feline sense of smell is most likely the strongest of all its senses.
So, while kitty's cute, petite nose plays such an important part in her life, there is even more help behind that nose. Cats also have a pair of vomeronasal organs (oftentimes called Jacobson's organs) on the roof of their mouth. When kitty wants to thoroughly investigate a particular scent, she will inhale through her mouth, usually curling her lips up at the same time, and bring the air over the roof of her mouth.
When the cat curls her lips like this, she will often squint her eyes and maybe even flatten her ears as she concentrates. This makes her look like she is scowling. This scowl-like look is called a Flehmen Reaction. The vomeronasal organs will then analyze the scent molecule by molecule - almost as if the cat is tasting the smell. This gives them additional information concerning their surroundings and the people around them.
Smells not only divulge where something is, they also play a crucial role in shaping the way cats distinguish territories. Cats mark objects - either by urine-spraying (which is normally preventable if neutered - the earlier the better) or secreting their scent glands on objects as a way of leaving their specific scent behind to show ownership to other felines as well as a way to remind them what already is theirs. That's why they rub around your legs and all of the furniture in the house - as a territorial claim.
When you come home from outside the house, your shrewd feline can smell what you had for lunch and for a mid-afternoon snack. Kitty can smell the grass on your shoes from the lawn you walked on to come home. And that dog you stopped to pet may cause your cat to flehmen so that she can get more information about him - no matter how disgusting kitty thinks of her canine counterpart (who, by the way, claims an even MORE sensitive smelling device).
However, your cat's sense of smell is so incredibly strong that we need to remember that while you can win a man (or woman's) heart through their stomach, you can only win a cat's heart through its nose.
Sandra L. Toney has been writing about cats for 15 years. An award-winning author of eight books, such as The Simple Guide to Cats and The Little Book of Cat Tricks, Toney is a professional member of the Cat Writers' Association. She lives in Indiana with her husband and three spoiled felines.
To read the next part of the Feline Sense Series, click on the links below.
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