A cat's sense of smell is as powerful as a dog's, but used for different purposes
By Kim Campbell Thornton and Dr. Marty Becker
Andrews McMeel Syndication
How important is scent to cats? More than you might think. No one has ever been silly enough to try to put them to work finding people or substances by scent, but cats have a keen sense of smell and rely on it heavily. Unlike dogs, however, who have developed an array of scent-related careers to help people, cats use their sense of smell for more personal endeavors: to establish territory and determine where they are, to identify each other and to whet their appetites.
Odor is crucial to a cat's feeling of comfort in the home. Cats use scent to mark territory and make a place their own. Their sebaceous glands -- located primarily on the lips, chin, between the eyes and ears, at the base of the tail and around the anus -- secrete sebum, an oily substance that is odorless to us but contains scent markers that are meaningful to cats. Urine and feces also contain these scent markers.
When you see your cat rubbing his face against your body or an object such as the refrigerator (where the food comes from!), he's laying down an invisible but scented token of possession, a signal to other cats that this person, place or thing belongs to him. Urine marking is a more odorous -- and less-pleasing-to-humans -- means of accomplishing the same thing.
Cats also use scent to identify and greet each other. They begin by sniffing faces and then rears. Think of it as the feline version of a handshake, and don't be offended when your cat presents his butt for you to sniff. He's just being polite -- in a catly sort of way.
Odor is also strongly linked to appetite. A cat who has lost her sense of smell will be uninterested in food. That's why feline nasal infections can be more serious than they might seem. Cats can quickly go downhill if they refuse to eat. Entice them by offering stinky canned food or warming their food before giving it to them. (Stir it well to make sure there aren't any hot spots that could burn the mouth.)
Cats also have an uncommon ability to "taste" scents with the help of some unusual anatomical features. They have two small air passages known as the nasopalatine ducts, which are located in the roof of the mouth just behind the upper front teeth (incisors). Air in the mouth passes through the ducts, which lead to the vomeronasal, or Jacobson's, organ in the nasal cavity.
If you've ever noticed your cat give something a good sniff, wrinkle his nose and open his mouth with the lips slightly retracted, you're seeing the vomeronasal organ in action. That expression, as if he's smelling something unpleasant, is called the flehmen response. It occurs when cats encounter urine or other odors that provide information to them. Nerves run between the VNO and the area of the brain that controls sexual behavior, and scientists believe that the flehmen response helps the cat to draw in and sample more of the odor. It's seen primarily in male cats and may assist them in determining a female's reproductive status. Females are more likely to display the flehmen response when sniffing their newborn kittens. Any cat may flehmen in response to the scent of catnip, the urine of other cats or to any unfamiliar smell.
Like humans, cats find certain odors to be repulsive, but their idea of what smells bad isn't the same as ours. Orange peel and mothballs are on their "do not sniff" list.
Which odors do cats love best? Catnip, of course, and, strangely, garlic and onion. And if you are lucky, your cat's favorite scent is you.
Pets respond well
Q: My dog has been diagnosed with cancer, and the oncologist recommends chemotherapy. He says that chemo isn't as hard on pets as it is on people. Is that true? Will my dog lose his hair or have other side effects?
A: We're sorry to hear about your dog's diagnosis. People are often hesitant to have their dogs undergo chemotherapy -- the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells -- but it can be an effective treatment with fewer side effects than those seen in humans.
Cancer occurs when cells grow uncontrollably, causing abnormal tissue to develop. Chemotherapy drugs affect not only the abnormal and rapidly growing cancer cells, but also other areas of the body that produce normal rapidly growing cells. Think bone marrow, which produces red blood cells; the lining of the intestinal tract, which sheds old cells and generates new ones frequently; and hair, which grows rapidly. That's why people who receive chemotherapy often suffer painful or unsightly side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, hair loss and weakness. The trade-off is that the high doses they receive improve their response to therapy.
The difference in dogs and cats is the amount of chemotherapy that's given. The goal is to provide additional time -- but not at the expense of quality of life. Most pets do not experience serious side effects from the treatment. Sometimes they are tired afterward or may experience nausea. If that happens, the oncologist (cancer specialist) may prescribe Cerenia, a drug that helps with motion sickness in animals and can relieve the nausea and fatigue caused by chemotherapy. Mild gastrointestinal side effects can be managed with a bland diet. And hair loss is rare in dogs.
Depending on the type of cancer and how advanced it is, chemotherapy can decrease tumor size, prolong life and sometimes lead to complete remission. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Reduce injury risk
-- Can “pre-hab” help your pet or canine athlete stay in shape and prevent injuries? The concept can benefit animals who are “weekend warriors” -- active only on weekends, for instance -- or who compete in dog sports, says veterinarian Cynthia Maro, who practices in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. Techniques that can help to condition pets, ward off such injuries as ligament tears and strains, or improve recovery time after injury or surgery include massage, nutraceuticals, acupuncture, rehab exercises, non-weight-bearing exercise on an underwater treadmill, platelet-rich plasma and laser treatments. The preventive treatments may also reduce the effects of degenerative joint diseases such as osteoarthritis, especially in pets starting to age. To implement a plan, consult a veterinarian who is board-certified in animal rehabilitation or sports medicine. More information is available at the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (vsmr.org) and at the American Association of Rehabilitative Veterinarians (rehabvets.org).
-- Having recently lost the latest in a long line of beloved animals, I know I’m not alone in hoping that if there’s an afterlife, they’ll be there with me. Because what kind of afterlife would it be without our best friends? Author Allia Zobel Nolan, a longtime cat lover, often mused about the same thing, and it led her to write “Heavenly Headbutts: Reflections of Hope About Cats and Eternity.” In it, she compiles quotes from philosophers, writers, veterinarians, theologians and church leaders -- including two popes and St. Francis -- about the place of animals in the afterlife and why they believe animals will be there. Delightfully illustrated with color photographs of cats, it’s a brief, positive and heartwarming meditation on the place of animals in our lives.
-- Ferret-curious? They are popular pets, but they can be a challenge to live with. Find out more about the special needs of the slinky and clever critters at fearfreehappyhomes.com/do-you-really-want-a-ferret-what-to-consider-before-getting-one.
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.