by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Does your cat sniff you and everything that you bring indoors, and rub herself against your legs? While we read and write words, cats read and write scents.
Smell is the main form of communication for cat, followed by sound and sight. When items are close enough they will also use touch and taste for inspection and identification.
Their sense of smell is many times greater than ours; they can pick up scents that we cannot even imagine exist, as well as ones we believe we have cleaned up completely. Ordinary smells, and cursory smelling, is done through the nose. The dampness of the nose leather attracts scent particles which are picked up by the olfactory receptors and analysed by the brain.
When a smell is identified as a feline pheromone or requires further investigation, the Vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ is used to gather information. In order to do this, the mouth is opened slightly, sometimes with the upper lip curled, the scent is sucked into the mouth and flicked upwards into the ducts to the vomeronasal organ situated between the roof of the mouth and the nose. This is referred to as the Flehmen response. Cats can ‘read’ a pheromone for information about gender, age, state of health, sterilised or intact, and when the scent was left.
Just as there are two ways to ‘read’, so are there two ways to ‘write’. Cats have 5 different pheromones which they spread by rubbing parts of their body on objects – including us! The head, mouth, tail, and paws all contain pheromone glands; nursing cats produce a different variety of pheromone from each nipple so that kittens can find their specific nipple and drink without a struggle. Spraying is a visible form of a powerful pheromone; some cats will ‘air spray’ pheromones only, without liquid.
The second form of writing is elimination of urine or faeces. These both contain pheromones and are good indicators of health. While most cats will cover these messages so they are not detected, dominant cats and those who want the messages to be seen will leave them open, sometimes in inappropriate places.
Cats carry their reading and writing equipment with them, so they can check for, or write, messages any time of day, in any place, on any item.