A Cat is Highly Sensitive to Scent

A Cat is Highly Sensitive to Scent

Cats use scent as a means of social communication – usually to keep other cats at a distance (except when looking for mates or scent marking members of their feline group). Cats use pheromones and scent derived from glands over the face and body as well as urine and even feces in different circumstances.

Cats have scent glands on their lips and chin, the top of the head, along the top of the tail, in between the digits of their paws and around their anal region. When a cat rubs around its owner it is these areas that leave its unique scent.  Similarly cats mark in the same way on twigs, branches and other objects in their territory. Cats will also claw on trees and fences leaving both a visual and scent mark from glands between their paw pads. The urine of a tom cat that has not been neutered leaves a pungent invasive mark. All cats, regardless of sex or reproductive status, scent mark in some ways. This may include minimal signals such as facial rubbing to more extreme signals such as spraying. Cats may also leave feces prominently sited rather than bury them (middening). It is important to remember that all scent marking originates from reinforcing some kind of security with the environment.

Colonies of cats usually consist of related queens and offspring. They may be found in feral or farm colonies where clumped food resources exist, are friendly societies (and the females may cooperate in terms of rearing kittens) where individuals spend time rubbing and grooming preferred individuals within the group. By rubbing against each other the cats swap their individual scents to produce a group scent profile; therefore the cats can recognize each member of their social group because of how they smell. There is very little aggression within the group. However, if cats from outside the social group try to hunt on their territory, colony members may show extreme aggression to get rid of these cats as they represent a threat to food and other resources. A cat who comes near the colony regularly, may gradually become accepted by the colony. This gradual introduction process should be mimicked when introducing a new cat into the home.

Take Home Message

  • Changes to the familiar and scent profile of the cat’s home can be challenging, for example, household cleaners and deodorizers, new furniture, redecorating, visiting people, dogs, or other cats. These are always things to consider if there are behavioral problems.
  • Scent marking indoors is not a sign that a cat is “doing something wrong” but is a response to changes in emotional state and often happens when a cat feels threatened. This might be in response to a new cat or some change in their environment that they find challenging.
  • Owners often misinterpret spraying for inappropriate elimination and vice versa.

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