Why do cats sniff everything?

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Have you ever noticed that your cat likes to sniff things that he comes into contact with? Find out why our cats like to sniff everything.

In every way, a cat’s sense of smell is superior to ours. Cats sniff to learn about their environment and to check for prey or food. They also sniff other cats’ scent messages to identify friend or foe. Long-distance feline messages, cat-to-cat, are left by urination, defecation, rubbing, and scratching. By sniffing, cats can also probably tell how long ago the message was left. In the home, scent is very important too. Cats create a family scent by rubbing on furniture, walls, and by rubbing on us humans. This mixed family scent is what makes them feel secure.

One reason why scent is so important to cats is because they have two ‘noses’. In its ordinary nose, a cat has 20-square centimetres of scent surface (the respiratory epithelium), 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 by deliberately sniffing in air, just like we do. This part of their scenting system is anatomically like ours, though superior. They also have an extra scent organ, known as the vomeronasal organ or Jacobson’s organ, unlike humans. This is a scent analyser, which connects to the nerves in the nasal cavity but also sends messages to the amygdala — a brain area involved in sex, food, and social behaviour.

When a cat uses their vomeronasal organ, they wrinkle the upper part of the nose, opening the mouth, showing their upper teeth. This helps draw scent into two little ducts in their upper mouth, just behind the front teeth. This behaviour is known as Flehmen behaviour. Cats perform this when they are smelling pheromones.

Humans, dogs, and other species cannot smell feline pheromones. Pheromones are secreted by glands on the cat’s body — the end of the back where the tail forms and up the top of the tail, around the anus, around the urogenital area, on the central pads of the feet, and the nipple area.

On the feline face, there are scent glands on the cheeks, under the chin, around the mouth, and on the forehead just below the ears, where the hair is often thin. So, when your cat is sniffing, they are looking for feline messages, checking for mice, or making sure that the family scent is up-to-date.