Cat Scent communication is sometimes referred to as ‘marking behavior’. Next to cat body language, cat scent communication is a primary method of communication for cats. Using scent, cats can tell from a distance if a cat entering their territory is familiar to them. It is also a way of leaving messages for other cats.
Almost everyone is aware of the dreaded urine marking behavior of cats but cats also scent marks by rubbing and scratching. Scent glands in the face and pads of the feet contain chemical scent markers (pheromones) unique to each cat.
Cats have an extraordinarily keen sense of smell. Some believe that cats have an even better sense of smell than dogs. However, training a cat to sniff out drugs for instance is virtually impossible. Cats, being the curious creatures they are, will ‘hit’ on anything that smells interesting to them. Their handlers would end up opening every bag at the airport!
Cats have a special organ in the roof of their mouth called a vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ that is used to analyze scent chemicals. A cat will enlist the aid of this special scent analyzer whenever she comes across an interesting smell but it is primarily used for analyzing pheromones.
When a cat comes across an interesting smell, she will breathe the scent in through the mouth. Then, with the tongue pushing the scent molecules up to the Jacobson’s organ, she will ‘taste’ the scent.
You can tell when your cats are using this organ. Their mouth will be open and the lips will be curled in a sort of comical grimace. This is called the Flehman response. Anyone witnessing a cat doing this will recognize it immediately.
Cats use cat scent communication to ‘talk’ to other cats. They communicate anything from ‘I was here’ to ‘I’m ready to mate’.
Urine marking, also known as spraying, is the most well-known method of cat scent communication. It is a very effective way for cats to mark territory, exchange information, threaten, announce their arrival and engage in a disagreement without actually having to confront each other.
While urine marking is most often associated with males, both male and female cats will engage is this type of cat scent communication. Spaying or neutering cats before they reach sexual maturity (around 6 months old) will usually stop this behavior before it starts. But it is not a guarantee.
Because urine marking is used for more than communicating sexual messages, occasionally, a de-sexed cat will start spraying for other reasons. Most often it is because of stress, anxiety, or if he feels threatened in some way. Fortunately, there are behavior modification methods that can help curb this unwelcome behavior. (More on this coming soon.)
It is important to recognize that urine marking is a natural behavior for a cat. It is not done out of spite or anger. The cat is not being deliberately ‘bad’. He is simply reacting to a specific situation in a typical feline way. Punishing a cat for urine spraying will only upset the cat and lead to more instances of spraying. So don’t punish – rectify the emotional trigger and modify the behavior!
Another form of cat scent communication is probably quite familiar to you but not recognized as communication – rubbing! Rubbing is an important aspect of social communication for cats. Special glands in the face, tail and paw pads release a scent unique to each cat. This scent is used to communicate information about the cat as well as mark territory.
Rubbing each other, especially flank rubbing (rubbing each other’s sides while passing), or rubbing on you while you are fixing a meal, are social behaviors. It is used for bonding and is also a sign of respect.
This rubbing behavior is also used by cats to create a group scent among cats living in the same household. This group scent increases bonding and familiarity between the cats. This same behavior is seen with feral cat colonies as well.
It is thought that creating a group scent has to do with the survival instinct. By creating a group scent, they can quickly identify whether a cat entering the territory is one of the groups or an intruder.
By rubbing on you, your cats are including you as part of the group and adding your scent to the group! This group scent behavior can come in handy when introducing a new cat to your existing multiple cat household. (More on this coming soon.)
Bunting is a type of rubbing behavior used for bonding. This is when a cat rubs or bumps his head on you or another cat. Bunting is a favorite bonding behavior of both Murry and Lily. When either one of them hops in our laps or lays on us in the bed, they have to bunt several times before settling down for a pet!
Petting is the human version of rubbing. It also serves to combine your scent with the scents of your cats. Petting your cats and allowing them to rub on you is an important part of social bonding – so enjoy it!
With a new cat, especially an adult, you should start this bonding process slowly using rubbing. Start by petting their head, face, and chin. Eventually, move on to the flank and tail as the cat will allow.
Pumpkin is a new arrival and already an adult. So far, he will allow, and even seems to enjoy, having his head and face petted but if we move beyond his shoulders he begins to growl – and we stop! Because he is already an adult, the bonding process will take longer and everyone knows to take it slow with him. (Just the other day he hopped up in a lap and lay down. He tolerated his back being petted but growled when she petted near the tail! We were all amazed at this big leap forward on his part!
When familiar cats approach each other in a non-hostile situation, they will usually greet by nose-to-nose sniffing. They then progress to head rubbing and may lick each other’s ears and face. The cat who initiates the rubbing is usually the more dominant one.
We see this often with brothers Barney and Louie. Because Barney is more outgoing, it would be easy to assume that he is the more dominant brother but it is always Louie that initiates the cat scent communication by rubbing and licking. He is actually the dominant brother.
Dominance doesn’t mean aggressive. Louie is really very even-tempered but he has earned respect as ‘top cat’ from his brother so Barney waits until Louie starts rubbing before he does anything more than sniffing.
With cats that are not friends, the encounter usually ends with nose to nose sniffing.
When greeting an unfamiliar cat, start by using cat scent communication. First, extend your index finger for the cat to sniff. This mimics the nose-to-nose greeting. Don’t try to pet her. After sniffing, if she rubs her mouth, head and maybe flank along your finger, she is saying she is comfortable enough with you and it is OK to pet her.
If she backs up and stares at you, she is issuing a challenge and you may get scratched or bitten if you try to pet her – so don’t pet her!
It is not just how cats condition their claws, scratching is also a form of cat scent communication. The special scent glands in the paw pads leave a scent unique to the cat wherever she scratches. It is primarily used to mark a cat’s territory. Not only does scratching leave their scent, but it also provides a visual marker for other cats to see.
Scratching is natural for cats and should not be considered ‘bad’ behavior. Your cats are not tearing up your couch because they are mad at you or simply misbehaving, they are communicating. Don’t try to punish them or stop this behavior.
Instead, provide other things for them to scratch on like quality scratching posts that won’t tip over. (Check out our Cats House Store for some good ones.) If the posts fall over, the cats may become afraid of it and won’t use them. Our cats seem to prefer ones with sisal rope. But a few prefer the carpeted ones. In a multiple cat household, you will need several scratching posts and cat trees for scratching. If you don’t have enough, chances are someone will decide that the couch is the best place to ‘leave their mark’!
The bottom line is don’t try to stop your cats from scratching. It is a normal and natural method of cat scent communication for them. Punishing a cat for being a cat will only create fear and frustration.
Cat scent communication is an important part of expressing emotion and bonding for a cat. So the next time you are fixing their meal, and several cats twine around your legs and almost make you fall over while others head bunt your hand so you spill food, don’t get frustrated – take it as the sign of respect it is and enjoy the bonding!