Pet Connection: Felines engage in sniff competition

How important is scent to cats? More than you might think. No one has ever been silly enough to try to put them to work finding people or substances by scent, but cats have a keen sense of smell and rely on it heavily.

Unlike dogs, however, who have developed an array of scent-related careers to help people, cats use their sense of smell for more personal endeavors: to establish territory and determine where they are, to identify each other, and to whet their appetites.

Odor is crucial to a cat’s feeling of comfort in the home. Cats use scent to mark territory and make a place their own. Their sebaceous glands – located primarily on the lips, chin, between the eyes and ears, at the base of the tail and around the anus – secrete sebum, an oily substance that is odorless to us but contains scent markers that are meaningful to cats. Urine and feces also contain these scent markers.

When you see your cat rubbing his face against your body or an object such as the refrigerator (where the food comes from!), he’s laying down an invisible but scented token of possession, a signal to other cats that this person, place or thing belongs to him.

Urine marking is a more odorous means of accomplishing the same thing. Cats also use scent to identify and greet each other. They begin by sniffing faces and then rears. Think of it as the feline version of a handshake.

Odor is also strongly linked to appetite. A cat who has lost her sense of smell will be uninterested in food. That’s why feline nasal infections can be more serious than they might seem. Cats can quickly go downhill if they refuse to eat. Entice them by offering stinky canned food or warming their food before giving it to them. (Stir it well to make sure there aren’t any hot spots.)

Cats also have an uncommon ability to “taste” scents, with the help of some unusual anatomical features. They have two small air passages known as the nasopalatine ducts, which are located in the roof of the mouth just behind the upper front teeth (incisors). Air in the mouth passes through the ducts, which lead to the vomeronasal, or Jacobson’s, organ in the nasal cavity.

If you’ve ever noticed your cat give something a good sniff, wrinkle his nose and open his mouth with the lips slightly retracted, you’re seeing the vomeronasal organ in action. That expression, as if he’s smelling something unpleasant, is called the flehmen response.

It occurs when cats encounter urine or other odors that provide information to them.

Like humans, cats find certain odors to be repulsive, but their idea of what smells bad isn’t the same as ours. Orange peel and mothballs are on their “do not sniff” list. Which odors do cats love best? Catnip, of course, and, strangely, garlic and onion. And if you are lucky, your cat’s favorite scent is you.

The buzz

City-dwelling feral cats have canny survival skills, according to a new study published in the online journal PLOS ONE. Lead author Stan Gehrt, associate professor of environment and natural resources at Ohio State University, says researchers monitored the health, home ranges and habitat selections of 39 feral and stray cats in the greater Chicago area, which also has a dense population of urban coyotes.

They discovered the cats avoided natural areas in the city because of the coyote presence and thus caused less damage than previously thought to wildlife in parks and nature preserves. The cats also lived longer and were healthier than expected.

•  Researchers at UCLA say genetic analysis shows that European hunter-gatherers domesticated wolves more than 18,000 years ago, with the canines gradually evolving into the dogs we know today.

In an article published Nov. 15 in Science, Robert Wayne, a UCLA professor and senior author of the research, said: “We found that instead of recent wolves being closest to domestic dogs, ancient European wolves were directly related to them. … Europe is where the oldest dogs are found.”

• Ferrets, especially those in shelters, are vulnerable to canine distemper virus, but The Xavier – A Ferret Abroad Canine Distemper Fund is raising money to help ferret shelters prevent outbreaks and treat the animals if they do become ill. Headquartered on Facebook, the fund provides vaccination grants and emergency medical grants to any ferret shelter in the world that belongs to the group.