Smells like home
We don’t tend to rely heavily on our sense of smell but cats do. If you think about it, cats are smaller than us, so they spend time closer to the ground, picking up on odours lower down in the environment that we’re often oblivious to. Scent is super important to them, so much so that cats essentially live in smell world!
Because cats can’t read, write or send emails, they communicate through odours to leave messages for other cats, helping them maintain distance from each other and to help identify other cats (e.g. family member, friend, stranger, threat?).
Scent marks are the business for cats to communicate with other cats as they’re silent, safe and they last too. They can be left at one point in time for other cats to decode later when the scent leaving cat’s long gone – great for helping to avoid conflict (which can be costly for cats) as well as providing reassurance.
Scent marks are also a bit like the feline equivalent of a sticky note which they use to provide information to themselves – these notes help to remind them of the routes they use to move through their territory, where they are, where they’ve been, and when they were last there.
Cats use scent to navigate and find their way around and to denote things that are significant to them. These notes are also super specific to the individual cat too so it’s a bit like a kitty business card.
Whenever you see a cat out and about in their garden or outside space ‘patrolling’, you’ll probably see them sniffing things and taking in the air – they’re probably checking for any new scent messages (e.g. left by other cats or animals) as well as detecting their own scent deposited previously.
And if all that wasn’t enough, cats also use their amazing sense of smell along with their fab hearing for hunting too.
The feline ‘smellscape’ is made all the more interesting by the fact that there are a number of different feline pheromones – species specific chemical signals produced and decoded only by cats.
One of the ways cats leave scent messages is through facial marking using pheromones. Your cat will probably face rub in their core territory (i.e. their home) rubbing on things like skirting boards, door frames, stairs, furniture etc. You’ll probably see your cat over-rubbing these areas too, essentially ‘topping up’ their scent marks. All this helps to create a familiar ‘scent profile’ for your cat in their core territory – the area where they should feel sufficiently safe and secure to ‘let their fur down’ and relax, eat, sleep, play etc.
The interesting thing is that cats don’t just mark through face rubbing, they also mark by scratching and with urine (sometimes even with pooh – ‘middening’ they call it). In their core area, the places and things a cat rubs with their face are familiar and safe and so there’s usually no need for the cat to ‘fortify’ their core area with something more prominent (e.g. urine).
Cats may also rub new things that arrive in the home (e.g. a new sofa) and sometimes things that are brought in from outside that smell strange and unfamiliar (e.g. shopping bags, shoes). If you’re a sensitive soul of a cat, you may feel it necessary to mark this thing to make it smell like home, but a face rub may not be enough so that’s when marking with urine comes in. Sounds weird to us, but perfectly natural and normal from the cat’s point of view. I remember this happening with my cat Scorpious when my brother came to visit on his motorbike and left his very expensive motorcycle boots on the floor in the hallway – oops!
For cats, everything of significance in their home or territory has a smell that identifies it to them. Cats are very tuned in to any changes, even small changes in scent that we don’t notice – they’re aware of them and assess them too. Cats will be aware of changes to do with specific things in their home, including people and other animals, as well as any changes to the overall smell of the home environment.
A cat’s facial scent marks become a mix of their scent and other’s scents – a group or family scent that conveys with it feelings of belonging, familiarity, safety and security. For your cat “there is a family scent mixture that is made up of your own scent, all the individual humans’ scents, and the scents of all other pets. This is the reassuring signature scent of your safe territory. It says ‘home’ (Haddon & Mills, 2023, p. 86).
This group scent profile can be disrupted by the arrival of unfamiliar cats, cats in the home who’ve been to the vet and return smelling different, smells from your workplace or other places you’ve been (hospitals probably smell a lot like vet surgeries to cats!). This profile can also be affected by new people moving into your home or moving out, the arrival of a new baby, if someone in the home is pregnant etc.
Any change or disruption to this familiar group scent profile can mean your cat feels it necessary to facial rub around the home more to ‘top up’ to try and enhance the social group scent. For example, when a pesky, meddling human interferes with your scent profile by cleaning the areas you’ve rubbed with your face, you have to re-mark them to restore the odour of home.
Your cat might also decide to fortify this scent by marking using urine too.
They say that providing an environment that respects a cat’s sense of smell is one of the five pillars of a healthy feline environment (Ellis et al, 2013). It’s something I often provide advice to clients on to make sure the fundamentals are right for their cat – getting the ‘cat stuff’ right as I like to call it.
The great news is that you don’t have to do much to help your place smell like home to your cat as a lot of it’s about not doing things! Here are some tips.
Avoid the use of artificial scents (e.g. scented candles, reed diffusers, plug-ins etc.) and strong-smelling cleaning products around the home.
Avoid cleaning areas or objects you see your cat rubbing against.
Avoid washing any of the things your cat sleeps on too often (e.g. blankets, beds etc.).
Avoid using any scented or perfumed litters in your cat’s litter trays.
Leave shoes, boots, rucksacks, handbags, shopping bags etc. at the entrance to the home or somewhere that your cat can’t access to avoid introducing outside smells to the home or help reduce the impact of these smells on your cat.
Rub any new items into the home with something that smells of your cat – rub them with a blanket that your cat likes to rest and snooze on and so smells of them.
Make sure you have a microchip controlled cat flap to avoid unfamiliar cats being able to access your home.
If you have more than one cat and one of your cats has spent some time at the vet (e.g. when hospitalised), when your cat comes home, restrict them to a room or area of the home (with access to everything they need) until all the cats are settled and calm and the returning cat has had an opportunity to take back on board the smells of home.
If you’re as keen as me on ensuring your home is super ‘cat friendly’, you can also avoid splashing on perfumes, body sprays, aftershaves or strong smelling deodorants – your cat will thank you for it and you might find your cat’s keener to interact with you too!
Have a review of your cat’s scratching facilities to help ensure that the home is supporting your cat’s scent communication that way too – having a good scratch is also a great ‘stress buster’ for cats.
If you’re fed up of listening to me rambling on and would prefer something to look at instead, here’s a great infographic from International Cat Care on how to respect your cat’s sense of smell and support their ability to communicate via scent.
In addition to in-house scratching options, providing your cat with good places to scratch in your garden or outside space is a good way to go (e.g. adding tree stumps or logs and other safe things for them to get their claws stuck into).
If you’d like any help, support or advice on anything cat behaviour or welfare related, please get in touch – https://www.theunderstoodcat.com/.
o Ellis S., Rodan I., Carney H., Heath S., Rochlitz I., Shearburn, L. D., Sundahl, E. and Westropp J. L. AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 2013; 15: 219-230.
o Haddon C. and Mills D. Being your cat. London: Octopus Publishing Group Limited, 2023.