People and cats live in completely different worlds when it comes to smell. The cat's sense of smell is many times more powerful than a human's, so keen that smells are among the most significant elements in your cat's world.
This one piece of information should help you understand many things, including why you and your cat might have a difference of opinion when it comes to the cleanliness of a litter box. What smells fine to you could smell like the nastiest public rest room for your cat, who may choose to go elsewhere.
While cats don't like litter boxes that smell like them -- or worse, like other cats -- they prefer everything else in their environment to carry their scent. The correct "smell environment" is so important to your cat that he engages in various marking behaviors to make everything in his world smell like him -- even you. Here are a few of your pet's scent-marking behaviors:
-- Rubbing. Your cat has structures called sebaceous glands at the base of his hair follicles that produce sebum, a substance that serves two purposes: coating the fur for protection and depositing scent on objects in the his environment. These glands are most numerous around your cat's mouth and on the chin, lips, upper eyelids, on the top of the base of tail, and near the anus and sex organs. If a cat rubs with his head (a behavior known as "bunting"), or any of these parts of his body, he's depositing sebum -- and scent -- on everything he touches. (Our pitiful noses can't detect these deposits, and it's probably just as well.)
-- Urine-spraying. Although few humans mind being "marked with sebum" as our cats rub against us lovingly, we don't at all approve of another of the cat's territorial behaviors: urine-marking. Although any cat may spray, the behavior is most common in unneutered males, who feel especially driven to mark their territory with their pungent urine by backing up to objects (or even people) and letting fly with a spray.
-- Clawing. If your pet digs his claws into his cat tree (or your couch!) he's not intending to be destructive. Scratching keeps claws in shape by removing the outer layer of material and keeping the tips sharp, and it also provides your cat with the opportunity to stretch. Perhaps not many cat-lovers realize that scratching is also important for scent-marking. As a cat claws, the pads of his feet come in contact with what he's digging into, and that motion leaves behind scent from the sweat glands in his feet (which is why even declawed cats "press the flesh" against objects in their territory).
-- Grooming. Your cat's attention to having every hair in place has many reasons, but one of them is scent-marking. Your cat's tongue covers every inch of his body with his own saliva, which contains his favorite perfume: Eau de Moi. Cats often groom themselves right after being petted -- to cover your scent with theirs. Your cat may also pay extra attention to your scent after you've stepped out of the shower, re-marking you with sweet rubbing to make sure everyone knows you're "his."
A final fact about the sensory equipment of cats: In addition to their noses, cats use a body part called the "vomeronasal organ," at the front of the roof of the mouth, to help them process smells, especially those of a sexual variety, such as the smell of a female in season. Whenever cats use this organ, they open their mouths a crack and "taste" the smell, a facial expression called "flehmen."
Pets on the Web: My colleagues at the Veterinary Information Network came up with "Ferret Central" (http://www.optics.rochester.edu:8080/users/pgreene/central.html), a no-glitz Web site with a wide variety of information on these pets, from their illnesses and husbandry to status reports on places like California where they're illegal -- but not uncommon. There are plenty of links to other ferret sites, as well as to e-mail lists and chat groups. I'm a sucker for fun stuff, which is why I liked the collection of ferret sounds, cartoons, jokes, songs and quizzes.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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