What does my cat smell?

Cats live in a landscape of odors. Odors tell them about their world and carry messages from other cats. 

Cats have two ways of detecting odors in their environment: the cells lining the nose and nasal cavity and the vomeronasal  organ  (VNO or  Jacobson’s  organ).  The VNO  consists of  two  fluid-filled  sacs  located  in  the  roof  of  the  cat’s  mouth that  connect  to  the  nasal  cavity  as  well  as  the  mouth. Molecules dissolved  in  the  nasal  mucus or saliva can be sucked into the VNO.

Sometimes,  you  will  see  a  cat  with  its  mouth  open,  lips  parted  and  upper  lip raised,  giving  the  appearance  of  a  grimace  or grin.  This  is  known  as  a  Flehmen  response and  allows  the  cat  to  draw  chemicals  into  the VNO.

Street addresses and Road Signs

The cat learns to associate certain odors/scents with a particular experience. To a cat, another animal or person has a signature odor. This collection of odors allows the cat to recognize an individual cat or other creature. For example, signature  odors can tell the cat the gender and health of another cat. 

The cat’s sense of smell also registers feline pheromones, chemicals that convey messages among cats.  These chemical messages can be understood only by other cats and are the same for all cats.


The signature odor is like a street address, telling the cat about an individual animal or object; pheromones are like traffic signs, alerting the cat to the presence of other cats and whether these cats are friendly or not.

Smells cats like (besides food!)

  • Catnip – a member of the mint family, contains nepetalactone, which can cause the “kitty crazies” in some of our feline friends!
  • Silver Vine – a plant from east Asia, has 6 compounds that are similar chemically to the active ingredient in catnip, nepetalactone.  More cats respond to silver vine than catnip.
  • Valerian Root – Contains 1 compound with similar chemical structure to nepetalactone
  • Tartarian Honeysuckle can also elicit a response in cats and is considered safe. 

Smells Cat’s don’t like

Smells cats don’t like include: citrus scents, vinegar, household cleaners

My four cats  also give lavender and rosemary a pass – there is no rubbing or nibbling on these although the humans sure enjoyed the indoor greenery during the winter!


DID YOU KNOW: Some cats do not respond to catnip; kittens will not respond to the herb until they are 4 months old or more.

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