by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Smell is an important part of any cats’ life. As well as ‘reading’ smells they also ‘write’ smells for other cats to use. Some smells are like post-it notes to themselves too.
The dictionary states that pheromones are chemical substances, produced and released into the environment by animals, that affect the behaviour or physiology of others of its species. From this definition we can see how important these signals are in influencing the behaviour of cats.
These chemical messages are ‘read’ by other cats through the Jacobson’s (vomeronasal) Organ located between the mouth and the nose. Typical behaviour when identifying and reading the signal is having the mouth slightly open and top lip curled to inhale the smell (flehmen behaviour) and ‘translate’ its meaning.
Each pheromone creates different messages. Depending on the situation and any possibly threat the pheromones can be changed to give off different messages. There are at least 5 basic pheromones used by cats.
Possibly the best-known pheromone is contained in urine. This gives information about gender, age, and reproductive status (neutered, spayed, intact male, in-season female). Depending on the message and the interpretation, this can affect the level of aggression in the cat reading the message. Cats that cover their urine are naturally hiding the smell while those that leave it open are inviting others to read.
Facial pheromones used for territory marking are deposited by rubbing articles with the head and face. This also helps a stressed cat to quickly and easily identify objects and areas that are safe and known. If these messages are cleaned away or they are constantly ‘overwritten’ by other cats it can increase stress in anxious cats as they cannot identify their own territory. Cats who read these messages can tell when last they were updated, often by whom if it is a known cat, how big the cat is (height of messages), if it is a friend, the level of stress and other information on the state of the cat.
Details of the level of attachment to a family member, or desire for association with another cat, are contained in pheromones secreted by the head, body and the tail. These are often exchanged by cats that are friends when they rub against each other.
Reassurance, safety and security pheromones are produced by mother cats that are feeding kittens. These help the kittens to know they are safe in that environment. Throughout their lives cats will respond to these pheromone messages.
The pads of the feet leave messages wherever the cat treads. These are useful for re-tracing her steps if she ventures into unknown territory. They also give information about the state of the cat, including the level of fear and stress in the cat at the time of leaving the foot-print messages.