Your cat might have the most perfect, boop-able nose—but your cat’s sense of smell is also pretty incredible. It’s around 14 times stronger than that of humans’.
The scientific research around the feline sense of smell isn’t extensive. We don’t know exactly how from far away a cat can smell a scent. Nor do we know if certain breeds have a stronger sense of smell than others. (You might have your own theories if you live in a multi-cat household!)
Scientists estimate cats can smell their food from between 126 to 154 feet away (roughly a football field-wide). No wonder your cat comes running to their bowl before you’ve even put it down!
However, we do know that cats’ noses have a ‘secret superpower’. All cats have a dual scent mechanism. Intrigued? Let’s follow our noses as we sniff out the facts.
Just How Strong Is A Cat’s Sense Of Smell?
“We don’t have any established studies that tell us exactly how far cats smell, because there are multiple factors involved,” says Anita Patel, DVM and area medical director with IndeVets. “For example, certain chemicals or smells can be detected at a greater distance than others.”
“Additionally, pheromones are perceived and processed differently than other chemicals. We do know cats have an extremely strong sense of smell based on the amount of olfactory tissue and types of receptors.”
“Cats have two primary organs that work together at a sensory level, to detect different scents and chemicals within their environment,” adds Patel. “Firstly, they have olfactory epithelium along the nasal mucosa which lines the passages (the tissues within the opening of the nose) and secondly, the vomeronasal organ or Jacobson’s organ.”
“The purpose of the vomeronasal organ is to detect pheromones—not only from other cats but also from other species, whether they are predator or prey for the cat,” adds Patel. “Ever seen a cat that looks like it’s curling its lips in? This allows them to pull pheromones toward that incisive papilla through their mouth and in turn to their Jacobson’s organ. This is known as the Flehmen Response.”
How does a cat’s sense of smell compare to a human’s?
What this all means is that a cat’s sense of smell is far more advanced than a human’s. “While the human nose contains roughly five to six million olfactory receptors, cats have up to 200 million,” says Teri Linn Byrd, DVM with Veterinarians.org. So their sense of smell is roughly 14 times better than ours.
What’s more, cats are also better at distinguishing between different scents. The scent receptor responsible for distinguishing between different scents is called the V1R receptor. Researchers found that while humans have only two of these receptors, cats have around 30.
What Do Cats Use Their Sense of Smell For?
We might assume that our cats use their sense of smell mostly to detect when we open a pouch of their favourite cat food—and while that’s definitely the case—they also use their sense of smell for a whole host of other reasons, including communicating and detecting danger.
Cats use their excellent sense of smell to detect any approaching predators—and for sniffing out their prey! “Cats detect pheromones not only from other cats but also from other predators and prey,” says Patel. “There is a small protrusion, or papilla, just behind a cat’s incisors that helps transfer pheromones to the Jacobson’s organ where they are further processed to help a cat determine how they should react.”
Communication & marking territory
Cats communicate between themselves and with us in a variety of different ways. From those cute vocalisations to slow blinking, our cats are always telling us something. They also leave a lot of pheromones as clues to communicate with other cats.
“Cats have scent glands that release pheromones on their paws, their faces, hindquarters and tail,” says Byrd. “This is why you see cats rubbing their faces on objects such as scratching posts, toys, each other and humans as a way of marking their territories.” This also explains why your cat loves their chin scratches. Some cats will mark their territory by spraying urine as well.
Finding a mate
When they’re in heat, female cats exude different pheromones that will be picked up by any un-neutered tomcats in the area. A tomcat may be able to detect these pheromones from as much as a mile away. A female cat in heat may also spray urine to mark her territory and leave a scent for any male cats, although this isn’t that common.
Finding & checking their food
“Cats use their sense of smell from the moment they’re born,” says Bryd. “In the first hours after birth they use scent to find their mother and their milk supply. But this is something cats do not leave in litter, they continue throughout their lives to find food with their nose and then check that it’s safe to eat. Many people have had the experience of hiding butter or food away in a cupboard to come home and find it eaten by their cat!”
How Does Smell Compare to the Other Senses?
So now we know that our cats’ sense of smell is much better than ours. Do cats come up trumps when it comes to the other senses, too?
“Cats can hear a huge variety of sounds at different decibels, giving them one of the widest ranges of hearing amongst mammals. They can also change the direction of their ears to pinpoint where sounds are coming from,” says Patel. And what about that strange little pocket on your cat’s ears? Turns out we’re still not exactly sure what function it serves (apart from added cuteness, of course).
“Cats’ vision is weaker than humans,” says Byrd. “Their eyes are designed to detect the motions of their prey, and while they can see far better in low light, their overall vision does not equal ours.” Cats do see in colour, but not as vibrantly as we do. Their peripheral vision is slightly better than ours and while their depth perception isn’t as accurate, they still have better depth perception than any other carnivore species.
“A cat’s sense of touch is extremely sensitive,” says Byrd. This is especially true for their whiskers which are deeply embedded in their skin and help them find information about their surroundings. Their whiskers sense objects in front of and to the sides of their bodies protecting their eyes and helping their awareness of obstacles in the dark.”
“The hair on a cat’s body also has a large number of nerve endings. These nerve endings are connected to their response system and serve to calm them when petted or when affectionate with other cats,” adds Byrd.
“Cats only have about just under 500 taste buds, compared to our 9,000. That means they tend to rely more on their sense of smell than taste when it comes to eating,” says Patel. They also don’t have the ability to detect sweet flavours.
“Remember that it’s the way in which all of these senses work together that make cats the ultimate hunting machines,” says Patel.
Diseases Linked to Sense Smell in Cats
There are a number of diseases with links to the olfactory system of cats. These include:
- Rhinosinusitis. An inflammation of the mucous membranes in the nose and sinuses. Feline viral rhinotracheitis and calicivirus often cause rhinosinusitis.
- Rhinotracheitis. A highly contagious and infectious disease, also called feline herpesvirus type one. This is one of the major causes of upper respiratory disease and conjunctivitis in cats.
- Pneumonia. Cats can be affected by both infectious pneumonia and aspiration pneumonia, although the symptoms for both are the same.
“Cats are vaccinated against some of these most common diseases that affect their olfactory systems,” says Byrd. “Feline viral rhinotracheitis and calicivirus are the most common causes of inflammation of the mucous membranes and sinuses of the cat’s nasal cavity. This inflammation causes nasal discharge, trouble breathing, inability to smell and reduces a cat’s appetite.”
“When it comes to any olfactory issues, sneezing is an important symptom—especially when cats are young. If your cat is sneezing, you should ask your veterinarian to investigate further. Early intervention and treatment for feline herpes viral tracheitis can prevent permanent damage to the cat’s nasal passages. This can cause lifelong problems with breathing and production of mucus,” adds Byrd.
A Cat’s Sense Of Smell Is Their Secret Superpower
Next time your cat curls up on your lap for a cuddle, you can appreciate that adorable nose even more! But, it’s also important to remember just how much more your cat can smell than you. “Pet parents should be sensitive to any smells that their cat might dislike. Perfumes, odour eliminators, strong citrus scents and cigarette smoke can be very offensive to cats,” says Byrd. Look around and see if there’s anything you can do to make your home more comfortable for your cat.
And of course, cats’ noses aren’t the only amazing things about them! From their curious nature to their brainy ways, our cats are simply incredible—from the tips of their ears to the end of their tail.