Facts about the animal kingdom

Sense of Smell in Cats - Why is scent important to cats?

Laura García Ortiz
By Laura García Ortiz, Veterinarian specialized in feline medicine. November 23, 2022
Sense of Smell in Cats - Why is scent important to cats?

See files for Cats

The sense of smell in cats is one of the most developed senses in this species, along with hearing and sight. A cat's sense of smell is the primary means by which it can identify people and objects. In fact, their sense of smell is 14 times better than that of humans. It is rare for cats to lose their sense of smell unless they have congestion due to respiratory disease or infection.

The following AnimalWised article will tell you everything you need to know about cats' sense of smell and how to stimulate it.

You may also be interested in: Natural Scents to Stop Cat Spraying
  1. How does a cat's sense of smell work?
  2. Why is scent important to cats?
  3. Olfactory stimulation in cats

How does a cat's sense of smell work?

The sense of smell is one of the five senses of the cat and one of the most important, followed by sight and hearing. So it's no surprise that a cat relies more on what its nose can smell than what its eyes can see to explore its surroundings. From bonding between mother and child, to hunting and mating, to exploring the environment, a cat's sense of smell is its most reliable tool for obtaining critical information.

Cats' sense of smell functions like that of other mammals. However, cats have an additional olfactory organ called the vomeronasal organ, often referred to as the cat's "second nose." It is located at the top of the mouth and has a slightly different function, picking up pheromone signatures that normal scent receptors cannot detect. This allows cats to communicate between other organisms of their species.

The sense of smell begins in the nostrils when the cat inhales air during normal breathing. Once this air enters, it reaches the nasal turbinates and the olfactory epithelium, which is located in the nasal cavity near the skull. It is composed of neurons whose axons join together to form the olfactory nerve and whose receptors are stimulated by inhaled odor molecules. Cats have more than 200 million olfactory sensors in their noses, while humans have only 5 million.

The olfactory nerve crosses the skull through the cribriform plate and the axons reach the olfactory bulb in the rostral part of the brain, where they divide into groups and constitute the olfactory glomeruli. Here they transmit the primary olfactory information to other neurons and deeper brain structures where the olfactory information can be interpreted and processed. The part of the brain where odors are interpreted, the olfactory bulb, is proportionally larger than in humans.

You may be interested in this other article, where we talk about the 10 smells that attract cats.

Sense of Smell in Cats - Why is scent important to cats? - How does a cat's sense of smell work?

Why is scent important to cats?

Scents and smells are incredibly important to cats. Cats rely heavily on their sense of smell because they use scents to communicate and gather information about their environment. The sense of smell in cats has the following functions:

  • Delimit and mark their territory
  • Determining the sex, age, and size of another animal
  • Detect the presence of predators
  • Detect the presence of potential mates, such as a female in heat
  • Parental imprinting

Furthermore, when kittens are born, they cannot see. Therefore, the sense of smell is the sense that allows them to know where their mother is and to cling to her to take in milk.

Researchers have shown that disruption of the sense of smell in cats can cause changes in sleep behavior, aggressiveness, and sexual behavior, and can also lead to anxiety.

Learn more about the way cats communicate by reading this other article, where we explain why cats sniff each other's butts.

Olfactory stimulation in cats

We know that cats are hunters by nature. In order for the cat to better develop these skills and especially its sense of smell, we can improve its experience with plants, toys, and games. There are several ways to stimulate and further improve the sense of smell in cats, including the following:

  • Stimulating herbs: catnip can positively stimulate our cat. We can impregnate toys or objects with this herb to stimulate our cats' sense of smell and enrich their environment, possibly reducing stress. Most cats respond to this stimulus (50-70%) and it lasts about 5-15 minutes. There are other aromatic herbs that can stimulate their sense of smell, such as oregano, parsley, dill, or rosemary.

  • Smells from the outside: Our indoor cats rarely venture outside, but it's important to smell fresh air from outside because smells change depending on the weather. This allows them to gather information about the outside world, enriching their environment. You can open the window a little to let air in, but make sure your cat can not go out and escape or fall.

  • Logs, leaves, or sticks from outside: Not only do these materials have a varied and natural smell, but they can also be used for playing or scratching, which will stimulate your cat's senses. Be careful not to bring in logs or very small sticks that could cause injury.

  • Safe houseplants for cats: some houseplants are non-toxic to cats and stimulate their sense of smell with their scents. An example of this is mint.

  • Essential oils: You should be aware of the safety of the particular essential oil, but there are some, such as lavender, that your cat will inhale that will have a calming effect on her.

You may be interested in this other article, where we explain which plants are safe for cats.

Sense of Smell in Cats - Why is scent important to cats? - Olfactory stimulation in cats

If you want to read similar articles to Sense of Smell in Cats - Why is scent important to cats?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

  • Atlas of plant and animal histology. Senses. Available at: https://mmegias.webs.uvigo.es/2-organos-a/guiada_o_a_03sentidos.php
  • Viviana pets shop. (2017). Your cat's sense of smell, know how it works . Available at: https://vivianapetshop.com.ar/olfato-gato-conoce-funciona/
Write a comment
Add an image
Click to attach a photo related to your comment
What did you think of this article?
1 of 3
Sense of Smell in Cats - Why is scent important to cats?