Can cats sense pregnancy?

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Have you been pregnant and thought that your cat knew it before you did? Find out more about whether our cats can sense pregnancy.

Cats live in a world of scent, which we humans can never fully understand, and it is likely they can sense when their owner is pregnant fairly early on. Their sense of smell is superior to ours; cats have almost as good a sense of smell as dogs do.

One reason for this superiority is their different anatomy. Cats have 20 square centimetres of scent surface (the respiratory epithelium) in their noses, compared with our two to four square centimetres. From this surface, nerves send messages to the olfactory bulb — the scent area in the brain. Cats detect scents from the air they automatically breathe in and also by deliberately sniffing in air, just like we do.

They also have a second ‘nose’, known as the veromonasal organ or Jacobson’s organ, which human beings do not possess. This is a scent analyser which connects to the nerves in nasal cavity but also sends messages to the amygdala — a brain area involved in sex, food, and social behaviour. The entrance to this scent organ is behind their top canine teeth and they suck in the scent in order to analyse it. While they do this, they make a facial grimace called the Flehmen response.

Cats use scent to identify their friends and foes, whether feline or human, and to mark their territory. It is very important to them that there is a ‘family scent’ profile in the home and they spend time rubbing on the furniture and on their humans to mix and spread this reassuring odour. Everything from the bed they sleep on to the skirting boards have to smell right to them.

During pregnancy, there is a rush of hormones, which means that a pregnant woman smells slightly different. It is this subtle change which a cat will detect. Some cats get more affectionate and will spend more time rubbing on their owner to remix and update the family scent. Very occasionally, a particularly anxious cat will spray upon their pregnant odour, showing that they are upset by even this very small change in the scent profile of their home.

It is important to plan so that any feline anxiety is reduced during your pregnancy because, when the baby comes home, the family scent will again be disrupted. Cats Protection gives useful advice at www.cats.org.uk/cats-and-your-pregnancy