Your Cat’s Super Sense of Smell

If your cat is finicky about her dinner, it’s no surprise. A cat’s sense of smell is 40 times greater than that of the average human connoisseur, and more than most dogs, except for hounds. She doesn’t have many taste receptors, so she ‘tastes’ her food by smelling it. 

Scientists measured how far away cats can smell their dinner. They can smell wet food roughly 50 yards away — the width of a football field. Depending on what kind of smell it is, researchers found that cats can smell some things as far as one to four miles away. But how can such a cute, tiny nose do so much work? 

First, your cat has about 200 million olfactory receptors, compared to only 5 million in a human nose.  She can detect about 200 million individual scents. While dogs may have a stronger sense of smell, cats have more refined sensing.

Second, her nose isn’t her only sniffer. When she opens her mouth and seems to be sucking in air, she is giving full access to the vomeronasal receptors in her upper palate, just behind her incisors. These receptors are connected to the nasal system, and help to collect pheromones that supply an additional layer of scented information that olfactory receptors can’t detect.  

Mammalian noses have three types of scent receptor proteins. V1R protein receptors help to distinguish one smell from another. Humans have two variants. Dogs have nine. Cats have 30! So they’re not just smelling mice, for instance, but Ralph mouse and Louis mouse. They can distinguish more particulars.

If cats are such superior sniffers, can they be used for investigations like bloodhounds? Studies have shown that cats can return home from as far away as four miles by relying on the memory of scents they have passed. But getting them to look for something that is not of personal interest is impossible. 

Cats can detect specific diseases in other animals and people through chemicals and vapors in skin pores and breath, as well as pheromones, yet cats are not good training subjects for the medical world, either. They are, however, keenly aware of their family’s scents, and will often react with concern when they detect odors that concern them. 

A cat’s sense of smell is naturally used to identify other cats and their current state of being (sick, upset, ready to mate, friendly or not, and so on). As they greet one another, they release pheromones for each other to inhale. Cats also mark what they consider ‘their own’  with pheromones released from their face, toes (making biscuits) and ears that tell other cats to stay away. If you have two cats, you may notice how they practically battle over who is going to knead in your lap, butt heads with you, or rub their cheeks against your face to claim you. 

When your cat has nasal congestion, it may be difficult to get her to eat. Without smelling her food, she may not have an appetite. Not eating at all can be life-threatening, because cats are so dependent on protein. If your kitty misses more than one meal, it is important to check with your vet.  

Also, as she gets older, a cat’s sense of smell will diminish, so you may need to boost the intensity of meal aromas with something like fish or broth, or perhaps warming their food. Your vet may want to put her on supplements or appetite boosters.

Notice, also, that any perfumes, room deodorizers or cleaning supplies – however natural they may be – smell 40 times stronger to a cat. You can please your kitty with a house that is simply cleaned, fresh air from a pet-safe screened open window, and cat-safe herbal house plants or fragrant flowers such as roses. Check the ASPCA list of toxic and nontoxic plants to be sure the plants you choose are not harmful.  

Although it seems to be the latest trend, incense or essential oils are dangerous. Just inhaling vapors or smoke can cause irritation, drooling, nausea and vomiting, wobbling, and lung problems. Physical contact can even cause liver damage or death. It’s best to keep these away from cats completely. Although the ASPCA suggests that using a diffuser in a cat-safe area of the house is alright, pet parents know that there isn’t a place in the house that is truly ‘cat-safe.’

Overall, your cat will be happiest in an airy home with a clean litter box, fresh food, safe natural plants, and people who simply smell like themselves.

Heron’s Crossing provides end-of-life care for pets in the Metro Atlanta area. In-home appointments with compassionate vets are available. If you’d prefer a home-like setting away from your home, our Decatur office is also available by appointment.