Friendly cat greeting a humanCats live in a landscape of odors. Odors tell them about their world and its inhabitants. The signature odor or scent can play an important role when introducing a cat to something new – whether it is a another cat, dog, person or a piece of furniture.

Cats and signature scents


The signature scent is a collection of odors secreted by an individual animal. This signature scent is influenced by the individual’s hormones, diet, immune system and other animals that he hangs out with.  Using her superb sense of smell, a cat can learn a surprising amount of information from the signature scent of another animal.

  • gender
  • health status
  • sexual receptivity
  • fitness
  • are you part of my social group?

The signature scent gives the cat a way of identifying an individual animal. But, like the resume submitted by a job applicant, it is not the whole story. There is more to be learned by a physical encounter. A young cat may pick up the signature odor of an older cat with kidney disease and find this scent a little frightening – he has never met a cat that smelled like that before.  After he spends some time with this older cat, he learns that particular odor of disease is not going to hurt him.

Cats and signature scents: learning about other cats


Introducing cats to cats

Free-roaming cats live in colonies if there is enough food in the neighborhood. Each colony has its own signature scent. Members of the colony identify each other by this scent. This colony scent also marks the core territory of the colony, where the members feel safe, can eat, rest and play.

One of the first things we should do to introduce a cat to another cat is to swap scents. Each cat will pick up some of the other’s scent – it is the start to creating a sense of “colony”.

An easy way to do this is to exchange bedding between the two. Why choose bedding? We hope that the cats are relaxed and calm in their beds and so the scents and pheromones in the bedding should convey a message of calm and relaxation in addition to things mentioned above, such as gender and health status. On the other hand, bedding may not be the best choice if the cat is in pain and discomfort when in the bed. See below for other ways to collect your cat’s scent.

Exchange the scented items between the two cats before they have any visual contact. There may be some hissing and growling at the scented object but hopefully this will go away in a few days. You will need to renew the scented item every other day or so. If your cat ignores the item and just walks on by, then she is not disturbed by this new addition so far. You can proceed on to step 2 of Introducing Cats: “time sharing” the common areas and the newcomer’s room.

Collecting Your Cat’s Scent

In The Trainable Cat, Sara Ellis views scent collection as one of 9 key skills that form a foundation for training cats. She recommends getting your cat accustomed to the process.  The goal is to make scent collection part of a pleasurable experience.  There are several ways to collect your cat’s scent – use whichever way suits your kitty.

  • Use a clean, light-weight cotton glove while stroking the cat in front of the ears and under the chin and cheeks (behind the whiskers).
  • You can also collect hair from the brush you’ve used to groom your cat in these areas.
  • As mentioned above, you can place a small piece of cloth on your cat’s bed for him to lie on.

The more you touch/brush these areas or the longer your cat lies on the cloth, the stronger the scent.

from Bradshaw, John W. S. and Sarah L. H. Ellis. “The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat.” (2016).

Cats and signature scents: learning about dogs and humans


Scent swapping should be the first step in introducing cats to dogs and even humans.

  • A piece of the dog’s bedding is a way to start the cat-dog introduction. Follow the same steps used for introducing two cats.
  • Let’s say you have a pet sitter coming to care for your cat while you are away – you may feel awkward asking for a T-shirt prior to the pet sitter coming to your home but your cat may appreciate it!

Cats and signature scents: new items in the house


If you are able to collect your cat’s scent, applying it to a new piece of furniture just might keep your cat from scratching that new armchair ( Make sure to put a scratching post nearby!) Take something with your cat’s scent on it and wipe the new piece of furniture with it. Now, that chair or table smells familiar to your cat and its sudden appearance is not so scary.

Remember – Our homes are our cat’s territory; we are members of our cat’s colony. Our homes have the signature scent that makes our cats feel safe and secure. Please make sure to maintain the “colony scent”!

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Cats have 40 x the number of odor sensitive cells in their noses as we humans do. They also have a vomeronasal organ in the roof of their mouths to process odors. Cats communicate by smell.

For a cat, odors can be associated with a particular place or individual animal, identifying that place or animal.

Another way cats communicate by smell is through semiochemicals. Odors can contain semiochemicals, molecules that carry “messages” from one organism to another. The organism receiving the “message” responds with a change in physiology or behavior. 

Semiochemicals that carry “messages” between members of the same species are called pheromones. For cats, pheromones are used to mark territorial boundaries, advertise that a cat is ready to mate, or send greetings. Lactating mother cats also produce a blend of “appeasing” pheromones,  that make kittens feel safe and reassured when their mothers are nearby.

Cats release pheromones from glands in their bodies. These glands can be found in…

  • the lips
  • the cheeks
  • the pads of the feet
  • at the base of the tail
  • the area surrounding the teats in females.
Glands producing pheromones
Locations of the glands that produce pheromones in the cat.

 

Cats communicate by smell


When your cat rubs his cheeks against furniture or that corner wall, he deposits pheromones there. Researchers have separated secretions from the sebaceous glands in your cat’s face into 5 pheromone-containing fractions. The “F3 fraction” is thought to be a friendly greeting, marking the area as safe.

Cat Appeasing Pheromone (CAP) is released when the mother cat nurses her kittens. It is a message to the kittens that they are safe and secure – after all, mom is there!

Cats also release pheromones when they scratch, marking territory with another pheromone, FIS or feline interdigital semiochemical. The cat making the scratch marks also leaves behind his own individual scent, giving the next cat who comes along an idea of who left the pheromone message. As time goes on, the pheromones/scents change. This change in pheromones/scents  notifies the incoming cat when the previous cat was there.

You can buy synthetic versions of feline pheromones

  • Facial marking pheromones: Feliway Classic or Comfort Zone Calming
  • CAP: Feliway Multicat or Comfort Zone Multicat.

Using Pheromones to Communicate with Your Cat


Synthetic versions of the F3 fraction of the facial pheromones and CAP have been made with the intention of calming cats and reducing conflict in multi-cat households. 

Facial Pheromones F3 Fraction


  • Diffuser or spray
  • Diffuser: place in areas you want your cat to identify as safe and secure, for example, sleeping areas.  You may not need to use the diffusers all the time – after all, your cat or cats are most likely marking these areas themselves. However, the diffuser could give an added boost in times of increased stress, such as home renovation.
  • F3 spray can help with  urine marking. Clean the marked spots with enzyme cleaners (eg. Tide), followed by rubbing alcohol. When dry, spray the spot with one of the F3 sprays.
  • The F3 spray is also useful to discourage scratching. Try spraying the area you DON’T want scratched with the F3 spray and place a scratching post nearby.

Cat Appeasing Pheromone


  • Diffuser
  • This product can be useful in multi-cat households when introducing a new cat. Place the diffuser in the common areas where all the cats will congregate.
  • You may not need to use this diffuser all the time but it can give a boost during times of stress, for example, when one cat returns from a veterinary visit.

A product called Feliscratch contained a synthetic version of FIS. Feliscratch was applied to the scratching post to encourage cats to use it.  Although this product was effective, it has recently been pulled off the market due to flagging sales.

No Feliscratch?

  • Make scratchers appealing with treats or catnip
  • If your cat will knead a small fleece blanket, it is possible that this blanket may have FIS deposited on it.
  • Placing the blanket near a new scratching post may attract your cat to the scratcher.

How effective are pheromones in communicating messages to cats?


How receptive an individual cat is to pheromone signals may depend upon her experience.  A free-roaming cat or cat who is a member of a multi-cat household will use the signals more than an indoor cat who lives alone.

You can think of pheromones as those signs in the library asking you to KEEP QUIET or the NO SMOKING signs – there is always someone who is talking or smoking. Compliance is never 100%.

Since cats communicate by smell, synthetic cat pheromones allow us to add some basic messages when we are trying to change a cat’s behavior. Pheromones are best used in conjunction with other behavior modifications.

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The Cat Friendly Home: Maintain the Colony Scent

Odors not only tell cats about their world ; they also carry messages from other cats.

Free-roaming cats live in colonies if there is enough food in the neighborhood. Each colony has its own signature scent. Members of the colony identify each other by this scent. This colony scent also marks the core territory of the colony, where the members feel safe, can eat, rest and play.

Our homes are our cat’s territory; we are members of our cat’s colony. Our homes have the colony scent that makes our cats feel safe and secure.

How do we maintain the colony scent in our homes?


Marley marks the corner wall at the top of the stairs.

 

Scratching post near the litter box.

Cats deposit pheromones  and signature scents using glands on their faces. You may see your cat rubbing the corner of a wall or furniture; you may also see him rub the same place again later the next day – he is marking the area as safe and familiar.

Pheromones and communication

Placing scratching posts around your home at windows, doors, and near where your kitty sleeps also provides boundary marking. Glands in kitty’s feet release pheromones and odors when she scratches which are deposited on the scratching posts.

Scratching Basics

Litter boxes are also part of the kitty network – urine and feces can carry messages and identify individual cats within the house.

Litter Box Basics

Disturbances in the Scent…


Marley marks the corner wall at the top of the stairs.
A well marked wall.

Cleaners


  • Avoid using strong smelling disinfectant or scented cleaners.
  • Some of the disinfectant cleaners linger on surfaces for a long time after you have used them for cleaning. Cats can be notorious counter surfers and they lick their paws.
  • Also avoid cleaners with essential oils – most essential oils are toxic to cats.
  • Visit the Environmental Working Group site to learn more about the cleaners you’re using.

Environmental Working Group

“Whisker Walls”


It is best to leave those “whisker walls” where the kitties rub their cheeks untouched for as long as you can. If they are just too unsightly, try unscented castile soap (made out of plant sources) followed with a rinse. After cleaning, spray with Feliway Classic (Comfort Zone Calming)

 

Litter Boxes


Cleaning the litter tray can be done with mild cleaners, for example, dishwashing soap. If you do use bleach, make sure to dilute it and rinse the tray thoroughly. The CDC recommends diluting 1/3 cup unscented household bleach with 1 gallon of water for cleaning surfaces.

Avoid cleaning all the litter boxes at once – stagger the cleanings. Scooping daily if you use clumping litter, will allow you to empty and clean the litter box ever 2-4 weeks.

Hydrogen peroxide (3%) has good disinfecting properties and breaks down into just oxygen and water.

  1. Start with a box that has had all solid waste and old litter removed.
  2. Spray a fine coating of hydrogen peroxide on the inside of the box. Allow it to sit for 15 minutes.
  3. Scrub the inside thoroughly. Completely rinse the hydrogen peroxide out and dry the litter box before replacing the litter.

The Bark Space

Veterinary visits and hospitalization


When your cat goes to the vet, make sure that some of her familiar bedding goes with her for reassurance. If you have other cats, take along some other bedding the other cats sleep on in a plastic bag for the trip home. Ask that it be put in your cat’s carrier before picking her up. This helps maintain the colony scent when your cat is on her way home.

My youngest cat formerly was a street cat. He will be aggressive with the older cats returning from a day at the vet if we do not include some of his bedding for his roommate to come home with. I also make sure that the Feliway multi-cat diffusers are working in the common areas.

Managing new smells at the front door…


  • Place footwear and shopping bags at the door when you return home – allow the cats to examine these items before moving them further into the house
  • Wash your hands before greeting your cat or cats
  • Change your clothing if you have been in contact with strange cats and dogs

Pheromones help maintain the colony scent…


  • Feliway Classic (ComfortZone Calming) diffusers help the cats feel safe in their sleeping and litter areas
  • Multicat diffusers keep harmony in the common areas.
  • Wipe down new items with a cloth sprayed with the Classic or Calming  pheromone.

The Cat Friendly Home: Predictable and Positive Interactions Between Cats and Humans

What is the predictable and positive way to greet a cat?

What makes cat-human interactions predictable and positive?

Greet your cat in his language…


When there is sufficient food in an area, free-roaming cats will often live in colonies. Cat colonies are groups of related cats. The core of the colony is the mother cat, her kittens, her sisters and their kittens.

Each cat colony has a scent…


Cats live in a landscape of odors – their sense of smell is 1000 x more sensitive than ours and they communicate by scent. The cat colony has its own scent – each member has this scent.

 

Scent identifies members…


 Colony members often greet each other by touching noses, confirming the “colony” scent.

They also groom each other (allo-grooming) mostly on the head and rub against each other (allo-rubbing). All of these actions exchange scent, confirming the “colony odor” and membership in the colony.

You are part of your cat’s “colony” and share the “colony” scent, marking you as a colony member. You also have your “signature scent”, that identifies you as an individual to your cat. Greet your cat by letting her smell you and confirm that you belong to the colony.

Your cat may be a highly skilled hunter but he is also a small animal who is prey for larger carnivores such as dogs and coyotes. We are much larger than he is and don’t want to scare him and make him feel like prey. If you get on your cat’s level, you will seem smaller and not as threatening.

Meet and Greet – A Predictable and Positive Hello


 

 

 

Athena accepts a greeting by rubbing her face against my hand

Get on your cat’s level by bending down or by interacting with her on a higher surface. Extend a hand or a finger and allow her to smell you.

  •  If she wishes to continue the interaction, she will rub against your hand (allo-rub).
  • Handle your cat on her head at first. This mimics the “allo-grooming” of friendly cats, where they groom each others’ heads.
  • A friendly or bonded kitty may allow her back to be stroked after accepting a head rub – like the “allo-rubbing” of colony cats.
  • Your colony membership is up to date!

If you cat does not lean into your hand or rub your hand on greeting, save the petting session for later – like us, there are times your cat does not want to be touched.

Other Predictable and Positive Interactions between cats and humans…


  • grooming, treat time or play time – Make this POSITIVE – choose something your cat enjoys
  • have a session the same time each day, say, after dinner or before bedtime
  • cats are in tune to the household rituals that mark the passing of the day more than the time on the clock.
  • this “schedule” allows you to communicate with your cat. He will be looking for the clues that tell him that treat time is around the corner – he may show up and solicit the interaction with a chirrup or meow.
Athena sniffs her comb prior to being groomed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have more than one cat?  Make sure each kitty gets some premium time!

These activities will strengthen the owner-pet bond. This time can also be used to train behaviors that are beneficial to both owner and cat – for example, conditioning your cat to accept kibble in treats to reduce stress when she needs oral medication.

Do you ever wonder why cats like us?


People are the ultimate resource – we provide food, shelter, play and safety.
To our cats , we may seem to be large, clumsy and somewhat unpredictable cats.
Let’s eliminate the unpredictability by greeting our cats in their language and providing positive interactions that they can predict.

Pheromones and Feline Communication


To us humans, smell is only important for deciding what food to eat or what perfume to wear. But for cats, smells are like a second language. With just their noses, they can learn almost everything they need to know about their surroundings and the other cats they meet.

 

 

Each of us has his or her own “signature odor”. These signature odors help cats recognize other cats, familiar humans and other animals by the way they smell. 

 

“Semiochemicals” are special molecules that carry “messages” from one organism to another. The organism receiving the “message” will respond with a change in physiology or behavior. Most semiochemicals are transmitted by odors.

Pheromones


Pheromones are a type of semiochemical that helps animals of the same species message with each other. They are the same for every member of the species, and send the same “message” to each member of that species that detects them. For cats, these messages include marking boundaries, indicating sexual receptivity, and sending greetings. Lactating mother cats also produce a blend of “appeasing” pheromones that make kittens feel safe and reassured when their mothers are nearby.  

Cats take in pheromones either by sniffing or using the Flehmen response. They release pheromones using glands located in: 

  • the lips
  • the cheeks
  • the pads of the feet
  • under the chin
  • at the base of the tail 
  • the area surrounding the teats in females. 

 

 

When cats rub their faces on things, sharpen their claws on an object, spray urine, or leave their feces uncovered, they are depositing pheromones. These pheromones linger in the area and help cats “leave a message” for any other cats that pass by.

 

It’s easy to get frustrated with your cat when these messages damage your furniture or stain your carpet, but remember: your cat is trying to communicate, not destroy your home. Just giving them objects they’re allowed to “mark,” like scratching posts and other cat furniture, is often all they need to convince them to deposit their pheromones in more appropriate places.

Science and Pheromones: Synthetic Pheromones


Some feline pheromones have been synthesized in the laboratory and are available commercially.  Feliway and Comfort Zone are two brands of synthetic cat pheromones. 

Feliway Classic (Comfort Zone “Calming”) is a synthetic version of the pheromones cats deposit when rubbing their whiskers/lips on things. This particular pheromone marks the cat’s territory as safe and secure. 

Feliway Multicat (Comfort Zone Multicat Control) is a synthetic version of the “appeasing” pheromone mother cats use to soothe their kittens, and can help reduce tension in multi-cat households. 

Feliscratch replicates the pheromones released when a cat scratches something, marking territory and signaling that he was there. We can use Feliscratch to encourage cats to use a scratching post.

 

These products can be used alone or combined to help you tell your cat how you want him or her to behave. For example, you could use Feliscratch to make your cat’s scratching post more appealing, and also use Feliway Classic on other areas of your home to show your cat that they are already safely marked and there is no need to scratch there.

 

Feline pheromones are undetectable by human noses or other animals. So, you can’t smell the world the same way your cat does. But knowing the importance of pheromones in your cat’s world will help you better understand “why my cat does that”.

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.