Wednesday, 12 July 2017

What Your Cat's Nose Knows

There’s a lot more to your cat’s nose than you think.

Close-up of a sleeping cat's nose

Do you ever pay much attention to that cute little nose your cat has? We’re used to thinking of dogs as being all about smells – but it turns out cats are very much into scent too. A literature review by Kristyn Vitale Shreve and Monique Udell (Oregon State University) explains what we know about the importance of olfaction and chemical detection to cats, from what it means for indoor cats to the possibility of trained scent detection cats.

Vitale Shreve and Udell say,
“Importantly, a better understanding of cat chemical signals has critical applied implications, as scent (and marking) plays an important role in many species-typical cat behaviors, problem behaviors, and can also serve as enrichment if properly understood and applied.” 

Ultimately, if cat owners have a better understanding of the role of scent in their cat’s life, they can improve their cat’s welfare.

How cats process chemical signals 

You probably already know cats have two different systems that are important organs of olfaction and chemical detection.

First of all, of course, there’s the nose: the two nostrils that allow scents in to the nasal cavity. Then there’s the vomeronasal organ (more easily called the VNO if you prefer). This is in the hard palate in the roof of the mouth. When you see a cat with their mouth open in a grimace, called the Flehmen response, they are utilising their VNO to make sense of chemical signals.

Beyond that, we don’t know as much as you’d think, showing the urgency of more research in this area. For example, we know that a part of the brain called the caudate is used in processing smells, and in many species it is also activated in anticipation of rewards. In dogs, we know that the caudate is activated in response to the smell of a familiar human. We don’t yet know if this occurs in cats or not.

And while we know the vomeronasal organ has three types of detectors, only one of them has ever been investigated.

The VNO detects what are known as pheromones – chemical signals that carry meaning for that and other cats. Cats release different types of pheromones from glands on their bodies, and while the purpose of some is not known, we know a lot more about others and synthetic versions of some are available (you’ve heard of Feliway).

Close-up of a cat's nose

Medical detection cats? 

Cats are able to tell the difference between many different scents. Vitale Shreve and Udell say their size, agility, and ability to fit in small spaces means that cats may make excellent scent detection animals. For people who are afraid of dogs, cats might make good medical detection animals. Of course, more research is needed, not just into a cat’s sense of smell but also into the practicalities.

How cats use chemical signals 

Cats have scent glands on the head between the eyes and ears, on the side of the forehead, in the cheeks, under the chin, at the corners of the mouth, between the pads on the paws, at the base of the tail, in the ano-genital area, and around a female cat’s nipples. These glands produce pheromones.

Pheromones are used in social communication. As solitary animals, cats can use scent to mark their territory so other cats know to stay away, without them even needing to meet. When cats live in groups, they can maintain a ‘group scent’ that means familiar cats all smell similar. When you see cats rub against each other’s bodies, it is believed they are maintaining this group scent.

Pheromones are also used in sexual activity. When a tomcat rubs his head near a sexually intact female, he leaves F2 pheromone.

In addition to pheromones, cats deposit scent by scratching and with saliva, urine and faeces. 

Scratching leaves scent from glands in the cat’s paws, and over time may build up on the scratched object. It may become an “olfactory reference point” for the cat, and so providing appropriate places for cats to scratch and leave their scent is important.

The importance of scent to kittens 

Kittens are born with their eyes and ears closed. They use the feeling of warmth, their sense of touch and chemical detection to find their nest. The nest is full of chemical signals – secretions from the mother cat’s glands mark the area, and hair, saliva and urine from the kittens all add to the mix. This nest odour is thought to reduce stress in the kittens, have a calming influence and improve their well-being.

A  mother cat nursing her little kittens
Photo: Rashid Valitov; top, Dziewul (both Shutterstock).

Did you know that within a litter of kittens, by the time they are one or two days old (and until about 32 days) each one has its own preferred nipple on the mother? The scientific term is “teat constancy.” Pheromones are released from glands around the nipples. We don’t know if each nipple has its own characteristic odour, or if saliva from the kitten adds its scent to the nipple.

As the kittens are able to move around more, “teat constancy” subsides and kittens will nurse from other female cats as well as their mother.

Scent in social relationships between cats 

Olfaction plays an important part in social relationships between cats. The authors say that in one study, sniffing accounted for almost a third of the behaviours observed. Cats often sniff each other at the start of social interactions.

Male and female cats respond differently to smells from other cats; the Flehmen response and urine spraying are more common in males, whereas female cats pay more attention to skin secretions than to urine. Chemical signals seem to play both a sexual and a social role.

Chemical signals are also used in marking territory and there are several theories about how this works. It may be that marking is used to tell other cats to stay away, but an alternative idea is that it helps the cat feel at home within their own territory. This is another area where more research is needed.

What this means to you as a cat owner 

Cat owners should recognize that chemical signals are important to cats, even if we are not always able to detect them ourselves.

Some of these signals help to make cats feel safe and secure – which means that if we get rid of them with too much cleaning, it may make our cats more anxious. The authors suggest the use of cleaning products should be limited near the cat’s rest areas, scratching posts and litterboxes. If we remove their scent from these areas, they may choose different areas for these activities instead, which we may be none too happy about.

You may notice that in places where your cat rubs frequently, the furniture or wall is marked and paint may even be rubbed off. Your cat gains comfort from these areas smelling like him- or her-self, so if you can hold off cleaning or re-painting as long as you can, your cat would prefer it.

A calico cat sniffing a tree branch
Photo: Kristi Blohkin (Shutterstock).

Adding the cat’s own scent to new furniture or new environments may help it to feel calm and relaxed. This may be especially important in rehoming centres, where the cat is faced with a completely new and stressful environment.

The idea of scent as a reference point within the environment may be especially useful for people with blind cats.

Providing scents to cats can be an enrichment activity, especially for indoor cats. Catnip is an obvious example, and while many cat owners are aware of this there are other substances such as silver vine that fewer people have heard of. Sarah Ellis has a lovely idea in her book, The Trainable Cat (co-authored with John Bradshaw) of a sensory box – bringing things from the outside in for the cat to experience. Remember too that cats can get used to things, so rotating scents or bringing in new scents is a good idea.

Cats can be trained to go on leash walks to give them access to the outdoors. Alternately, safe enclosed ‘catios’ can give them outdoor spaces if it is not possible for them to have regular outdoor access. Simply leaving a window safely ajar can let them sniff the breeze.

Scratching is important to cats, and so they need to be provided with suitable scratching posts. When such posts are available, cats will use them – and you can reinforce this behaviour by rewarding them (e.g. with a cat treat) for scratching them.

If your cat is not using the litter box appropriately (peeing outside the box, urine spraying, pooping in the wrong place), then in addition to taking your cat to the vet to check for a medical problem, also consider that stress might be playing a role. Make sure you have enough litter boxes, that they are big enough and located in quiet areas, and take steps to reduce stress in all aspects of your cat’s life. Vitale Shreve and Udell note the unfortunate possibility that if litter box issues are a result of anxiety, the scent from them may make the cat feel more comfortable, and completely getting rid of that scent may cause more anxiety… Since humans are not likely to tolerate this scent, it emphasizes the importance of reducing stress in all other areas.

It’s worth thinking about where a cat’s scent glands are when stroking your cat too. A study by Sarah Ellis et al (2014) found cats prefer to be stroked around the head in the areas where the scent glands are, and suggests it may be a bit like allo-rubbing.

Of course, always give cats a choice of whether or not to interact with you or with particular scents.


It turns out that scent and chemical communication matters a lot to cats, and that cats can differentiate between many different smells. While we need more research on different aspects of how cats produce and utilise chemical signals, we can use what we already know to help make cats feel more comfortable and secure, and even use scent as enrichment.

Shreve, K. R. V., & Udell, M. A. (2017). Stress, security, and scent: The influence of chemical signals on the social lives of domestic cats and implications for applied settings. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 187, 69-76.

Further reading

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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Rewards, Welfare and the Animal's Perspective in Training

Taking the animal’s perspective, and other highlights from the Train for Rewards blog party.

A cute dog and cat look expectant for their reward

Recently, 28 other blogs joined me in the Train for Rewards blog party to celebrate what we can do with reward-based training of our companion animals, and to encourage people to give it a try.

There were some truly brilliant posts. Thank you to everyone who took part and helped to make it such a success for the second year in a row.

It’s no surprise that most posts were about dog training, but cat training and the training of a pet pig also featured this year. And there were some common themes.

Animal welfare

The benefits to animal welfare when we use reward-based training methods instead of aversive techniques was a common theme.

Changes in how we think about animal welfare – to include positive experiences instead of just trying to reduce the bad – have implications for how we train animals, Kat Littlewood writes.

She says, “positive reinforcement is a ‘modern’ approach to learning and training, as it provides specific information to the animal about the exact behaviour that is required. In doing so, it enhances the human-animal bond.”

And as animals earn rewards, they experience positive emotional states, she says, and this is good for their welfare.

The benefits of reward-based training for both cats and their humans are also considered by Julie Hecht. She writes about training cats to like their cat carriers, something that really helps when taking them to the vet and would also come in handy in case of emergency. “It’s a shame these videos probably won’t go viral,” she says of the videos that illustrate her post, and it is. If you have a cat who is afraid of their carrier, be sure to check out that post.

A happy white Poodle raises a paw for a reward
Photo: Jagodka; top, Africa Studio (both Shutterstock)

If instead you have a dog you would like to train to go into a carrier, Malena DeMartini breaks down the steps she used to train her dog Tini to go into her travel crate. Getting Tini used to the travel crate will mean she can go places when a new train arrives in the neighbourhood, which is better for her welfare than being left at home for long periods.

Types of reward

Several posts, including my own, looked at the kind of reward that is useful in training dogs and cats.

Dr. Kate Mornement sums up why we should think about what to use as rewards. “Food is innately reinforcing and it works exceptionally well in training to teach dogs (and all animals) desired behaviours. But not all food is equal. Just because you think the treats you're using are rewarding to your dog (or other animal), doesn't mean they are the most rewarding or effective treats to use.”

The idea of testing different rewards and observing your dog or puppy’s response is also considered by Sydney Bleicher and by Jessica Ring, who uses the idea of the “Yum-o-meter.” (Cheese shreds get a good rating from all three dogs in this post). And Heather Fox took a close look at what she needed to do to make nosework training rewarding for her dog.

In Tell Me What You Want (What You Really Really Want) Casey McGee compares what humans might need to persuade them to do something (like run 3 miles in flip flops) to what a dog might need as a reward for the kinds of things we ask of them. She encourages us to think about how expensive different behaviours are from the dog’s perspective. Which brings us to…

Thinking about it from the animal’s perspective

The stubborn dog myth is considered by Helen Verte. You know those times when a dog does something wrong, like pee in the house, and the owner thinks it is because they are stubborn or spiteful? Not so. The reason is “Not to get back at the owner, or to carry out any other evil plan. They’re dogs. Their brains are made to react to a stimulus.”

Similarly, the Academy for Dog Trainers shared a cartoon that looks at house-training issues from the dog’s perspective. It’s a touch of humour that helps explain why some problems occur.

Sylvie Martin takes it on step further by asking “Seriously, who wants to be a pet?

But the best example of thinking about training from the dog’s perspective is in Melanie Cerone’s reflections on her own experiences as a crossover trainer, and how the benefits of reward-based training can be seen in her dog’s tail and face. (That video will surely make you happy).

And this beautifully-observed post by Megan O-Connor illustrates how low-level anxiety can affect a dog’s training session.

I’ve only touched on the main themes here. If you want to know more about how to use treats in training your dog, Tracy Krulik has you covered. Other posts looked at how to use habituation, the history of dog training, personal reflections on how using rewards changes the trainer, and more.

I highly recommend making a cup of tea or coffee and sitting down to read all the posts.

What did you learn from this year’s Train for Rewards blog party?

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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Happy Canada Day!

A photo-essay of dogs and cats to celebrate Canada's 150 years. Happy Birthday, Canada!

Two dogs play in beautiful Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada
Two dogs playing at Lake Louise. Photo: Ravensfoot (Shutterstock).

A beautiful white dog and red maple leaves
Beautiful dog and red maple leaves in BC. Photo: Bad Monkey Photography.

A border collie in front of an expansive Alberta skyline.
A border collie and expansive skies in Alberta. Photo: Hai Diec (Shutterstock).

A cat enjoys the sunshine through the window & views of Vancouver
A cat enjoys the sunshine and views of Vancouver. Photo: Marianne Catafesta (Shutterstock)

A dog looks out at the sea and a lighthouse in Nova Scotia
A dog looks out at the sea and a lighthouse in Nova Scotia. Photo: Greg and Jan Ritchie (Shutterstock)

A Wire Fox Terrier on the Confederation Trail, Prince Edward Island
A Wire Fox Terrier on the Trans Canada Trail, PEI. Photo: VJ Matthew (Shutterstock)

A woman and her dogs in David Balfour park, Toronto, Canada
A woman and her dogs in David Balfour park, Toronto. Photo: Danilo Silveira (Shutterstock).

A fluffy cat sits on a table outside near a Canadian flag
A fluffy cat sits on a picnic table near a Canadian flag. Photo: Panksvatouny (Shutterstock).

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