Cats’ Sense Of Smell, A Vet Explains (2024)

Black and brown cat smelling human hand

Last Updated on 3 weeks by Dr. Shannon Barrett

Have you ever noticed your cat sniffing around and wondered just what they’re detecting? It’s no mystery to experts—cats have over 200 million odor sensors in their noses!

Their sense of smell is far superior to ours.

Key Takeaways

  • Cats’ noses are filled with over 200 million odor sensors, making their sense of smell 14 times stronger than a human’s.
  • Kittens use their highly developed sense of smell from birth to find their mother and food and start bonding with siblings.
  • Certain diseases like feline viral rhinotracheitis can harm a cat’s ability to smell, which may cause them to eat less.
  • A cat’s sense of touch is also sharp because of the sensitive whiskers that help them navigate and detect nearby objects or movements.

Cats sense of smell Comparison to humans

tabby cat sitting on a desk

A cat’s world is rich with scents that shape their experiences. With over 200 million odor sensors in their noses, felines can smell around 14 times better than we do.

This incredible ability helps them find food, spot danger, and communicate with other cats.

They rely on this sense even more than their sharp eyesight or sensitive ears.

Cats use this superpower to explore every inch of their surroundings in detail that we often miss out on entirely. Their sniffing habits aren’t just curious behavior; it’s how they understand and navigate through life.

Cats have a highly acute sense of smell, attributed to their well-developed smell (olfactory) structures.

Specifically, cats possess a well-developed olfactory bulb (see image). Also, the tissue covering the inside of their nose (olfactory mucosa) is almost twice as large as humans.

Drawing of the nasal cavity of a cat

AspectCatsHumans
Olfactory receptors200 millionAround 5 million
Strength of smell14 times strongerSignificantly weaker
Olfactory membrane space4:1 compared to humansSmaller in relation
Role of smell
Crucial for survival
Less vital
Rely more on sight and hearing

This heightened sense of smell is integral to their survival, guiding them through a world rich with scents undetectable to us.

Uses for detecting danger, communication, finding food and mates

cat pet feline-3846780jpg

Cats use their strong noses to stay safe from predators and find their next meal. When a cat wrinkles its nose and flares its nostrils, it’s taking in the scents around it.

This helps the cat figure out if there are dangers nearby.

It also lets cats talk to each other without making a sound. They leave scent marks that tell other cats “I was here” or “This is my home.”

A mother cat uses her smell to bond with her kittens. Smell also guides the kittens to her when they need food or comfort.

Finding good food is easy for cats because their noses guide them right to the best bites. When mealtime comes, they can sniff out which bowl has the yummiest treats. And when looking for love, a cat’s nose helps too!

Cats pick up on special smells that lead them straight to a mate.

Are Cats used for Bomb or Disease Detection?

Not yet. While cats have a keen sense of smell, the concept of using cats for disease or bomb (C4) detection specifically through olfaction has not been extensively tested.

The concept of animals detecting diseases, bombs and drugs is more commonly associated with dogs. Additionally, these dogs have been trained to sniff out various types of cancers and other diseases in humans due to their highly developed sense of smell.

Remember that although cats can smell better than humans, dogs have a better sense of smell than all of us.

A Look into a Cat’s Amazing Senses

Cats are not just your average furry companions; they’re sensory powerhouses that navigate their world with a set of senses tuned like fine instruments.

Vision in Cats

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A cat’s eyes are built for hunting. In their eyes is a special layer called the tapetum lucidum, which acts like a mirror. It reflects any bit of light inside their eyes.

This makes things brighter for them and perfect for spotting prey in the dark.

Their field of view is also wider than ours, giving them a big advantage when they need to watch out for danger or track down dinner. Cats don’t see colors like we do, for example, but that doesn’t hold them back.

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At night, their vision becomes super sharp, even though it’s less colorful. Their pupils open wide at night to let in more light and close to mere slits during the day to protect from glare – true masters of low light living!

Related content: Vision in Cats and Dogs

Hearing in Cats

Close up of an orange and white cat

Cats can hear sounds that we humans simply can’t. Their ears are like super-powered antennas, picking up higher frequencies and even the tiniest sound or rustle of a leaf.

This amazing hearing helps them hunt in low light or darkness when their eyes might not catch every movement.

Each ear moves independently, zeroing in on where noises come from—whether it’s a mouse scurrying or the soft footsteps of an owner returning home.

You’ll often see your cat perk up its ears at almost silent sounds. They do this to gather more sensory information about their environment.

The delicate structure inside those furry ears gives cats an edge over us in detecting what’s happening around them.

Their enhanced sense of touch works hand-in-hand with this acute ability, letting them feel air currents created by movements.

Touch in Cats

cat pet feline-6568422jpg

Cats feel their way around with incredible precision. Their whiskers are like radar detectors, picking up every slight breeze or stir in the environment.

Each whisker is rooted deeply into the cat’ skin and surrounded by a bundle of nerves, making them super sensitive touch receptors.

Think of them as little antennas sending signals about nearby objects and movements straight to the cat’s brain.

Imagine walking through your house with eyes closed—scary, right? Not for cats! They use those long, elegant whiskers to sense what’s around without bumping into things.

These tactile hairs detect even faint vibrations, helping felines understand their surroundings better than most animals.

Cats’ paws are also packed with nerve endings; just by stepping on something they can tell a lot about it. Whether it’s hunting prey or exploring new territory, that sensation under their feet plays a big part in how they interact with the world.

Taste in Cats

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Cats have significantly fewer taste buds than humans.

Specifically, they have around 470 to 500 taste buds. In contrast, humans have about 5,000 to 10,000 taste buds. This difference is likely due to the different dietary needs between us and cats.

Cats are carnivores that primarily rely on their sense of smell to identify food, whereas humans have a more varied diet that requires a more complex sense of taste.

Taste buds on a cat’s tongue are different from ours. They can detect sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory) flavors but not as many as we do. Imagine having just 473 taste receptors compared to a human’s 9,000! This means our feline friends don’t experience flavors like we do.

Their sense of taste is tuned more towards survival than enjoyment.

Sweet foods don’t tempt cats because they lack the sweet taste receptor. Instead, they prefer meaty tastes thanks to their well-developed umami receptors. These help them choose food that meets their high protein needs.

Their bitter taste receptors are more developed than ours. These receptors are likely important for avoiding toxic substances found in some prey or plants.

While this might seem limited, it works perfectly for these amazing predators in the wild.

Other Senses Compared to Smell

orange kitten sitting on a step

While the olfactory prowess of our feline friends often steals the spotlight, let’s not overlook the other senses that play a vital role in a cat’s world.

Each sense—be it the incredible acuity of their hearing or the precision of their touch—offers unique insights into how cats perceive and interact with their environment, creating a symphony of sensory experiences far beyond what we humans can comprehend.

Hearing in Cats compared to Smell

Cats boast remarkable hearing abilities, rivaling their powerful sense of smell.

HearingSmell
Cats can detect a wide range of frequencies, from 48 Hz to 85 kHz.With 200 million odor sensors, cats have a sense of smell 14 times better than humans.
Their ears can swivel independently, allowing them to pinpoint the exact location of a sound.Scents provide a wealth of information, from the presence of prey to the mood of another cat.
They can hear ultrasonic noises, which are crucial for hunting rodents that communicate in these high-pitched sounds.Cats identify people and objects primarily through their olfactory prowess.
Exceptional hearing aids in detecting subtle noises, indicating potential danger or prey.Smell is vital for communication; cats have scent glands on their faces for marking territory and expressing familiarity.
Even the faintest rustle can alert a cat, showcasing their acute auditory sense.distinct scent profile exists for each individual, which cats can discern with incredible accuracy.

Cats’ hearing and smell senses are both finely tuned instruments, essential to their survival and daily interactions. Each sense has its unique strengths, providing cats with a comprehensive understanding of their environment.

Sight compared to Smell

cat butterfly kitten-4277400jpg

Cats possess a remarkable sense of sight in low light conditions. However, when it comes to tracking down their dinner, they often rely more on vision than smell.

Sense of SightSense of Smell
Cats are predators, primarily visual hunters.While important, smell is secondary in hunting.
They have a wide field of view, allowing them to spot prey at great distances.Noses detect pheromones, aiding in communication with other felines.
Low-light vision is exceptional due to reflective cells behind their retinas.Smell is used to identify territories and detect the presence of predators.
Cats can see some colors, helping them distinguish details in their environment.They have a vomeronasal organ to enhance their perception of scents.
Their eyes are highly adapted to detect even the slightest movements.Sense of smell is less critical for finding food than for other species.

Touch compared to Smell

cat mackerel paw-2596496jpg

Touch is a cool way cats understand their world, but it’s different from smell. Their whiskers act like radar detectors, picking up vibrations and touches to navigate tight spaces or hunt prey.

Just think—those long hairs on their face are so sensitive they can feel the slightest breeze! But when it comes to checking out new things or figuring out if food is good, cat smell still wins every time.

Smells tell a cat a lot more than touch ever could.

They sniff to learn about other cats, sense danger, and even find mates. While touch gives them an immediate sense of what’s close by, smells can drift over from far away places—bringing news of all there is around them!

Taste compared to Smell

animal cat feline-800760jpg

Cats rely more on their sense of smell than taste when checking out food.

Their noses are mighty tools that tell them if something is yummy or yucky. This makes smelling things super important for cats, especially during mealtime.

A cat’s sniffing skill helps it figure out the world around it. They don’t need many taste buds because their nose does most of the job. A sniff can pick up odors we never notice and guide them towards good eats and away from bad stuff.

Pro Tip: If you cat has stuffy nose, they will likely not want to eat. Offer them very smelly cat food if this occurs.

Diseases Linked to Sense of Smell in Cats

animal cat feline-800760jpg

“Feline viral rhinotracheitis” is a serious respiratory disease that can damage a cat’s sense of smell. This illness, caused by feline herpesvirus type 1, leads to sneezing, nasal discharge, and sometimes fever.

As discussed, if their sense of smell suffers, cats may lose interest in eating because they rely heavily on this sense to enjoy food.

Another condition related to scent issues is “feline calicivirus.” It affects the nose and throat leading to infections. Cats with this virus might have trouble smelling due to mucus build-up in their nasal passages.

They could also develop ulcers in the mouth that make eating painful. Care for cats with these illnesses involves helping them regain their ability to sniff out their world fully.

Do Kittens have a good sense of smell?

cats kittens pet-8105667jpg

Kittens are born with a highly developed sense of smell—far superior to that of newborn humans.

This keen olfactory ability is crucial for recognizing their mother, locating her milk, and beginning the fundamental process of socialization among their littermates.

This built-in tool helps them mark places they’ve been with tiny scent messages.

As they grow older, this powerful nose becomes a key part of how they interact with everything around them. They map out their territory using smells that tell other cats “I was here.” It’s like leaving little notes all over for anyone who can read them – which in cat language means anyone who can sniff.

How Cat’s Senses Differ from Dogs

cat kitten dog-2603395jpg

When comparing cats against dogs, it’s intriguing to note that each animal’s sensory arsenal is finely tuned for different survival strategies.

Cats are refined for solitary stalking, while dogs—often pack hunters or diligent human aides—rely on a more social sniffing savvy.

Related Content: Sense of Smell in Dogs

A dogs sense of smell is superior to that of felines and humans. They have a larger number of scent (olfactory) receptors and a more extensive olfactory cortex (area in the brain responsible for smell).

Dogs can have up to 56 times more smell-sensitive receptors than humans, totaling up to 280 million in some breeds. This allows dogs to smell very low concentrations of odors, including tumors in humans.

Olfactory surfaces comparison:

  • Dogs olfactory surface = 9.76 cm²
  • Cats olfactory surface = 5.8 cm²
  • Humans olfactory surface = 3.08 cm²

This means dogs sense of smell is 56 times more sensitive than that of humans

Hearing is another strong sense in cats.

They can hear higher-pitched sounds than both humans and dogs. This skill helps them hunt small creatures like mice that make high-pitched noises. But even with their sharp ears, dogs outdo cats in hearing.

Final Thoughts

cat feline animal-649164jpg

Cats amaze us with their powerful sense of smell.

Their super sniffers guide them through life’s many adventures – from finding food to making friends. With such incredible noses, cats truly stand out in the animal kingdom.

They’re not just furry friends; they’re scent-detecting wizards sharing our homes.

Let’s give a round of “paws” for these remarkable creatures and their extraordinary noses.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How strong is a cat’s sense of smell compared to humans?

Cats have a superior sense of smell! Their noses can beat the human nose any day because they’re packed with olfactory tissue that makes smelling scents a breeze for these whiskered detectors.

Why do cats react differently when they sniff certain scents?

Ever notice your cat pause and open their mouth after sniffing something? That’s the Flehmen response, tapping into their dual scent mechanism using Jacobson’s organ to analyze smells better—kinda like getting a taste of the air!

Can all cats smell as well, or are some breeds different?

Mostly, all cats are on top when it comes to smelling, but if you see white cats with blue eyes, take note—they might not hear as well due to genetic deafness linked to their cool colors.

If my cat gets sick, can it affect how she smells things?

Yes—it could! Just like us — if we catch something contagious like feline herpesvirus type 1 or rhinosinusitis — our nasal cavities get stuffed up; same happens with kitties making it tough for them to enjoy those tasty aromas. Pet owners should take their cats to the vet if they notice a stuffy nose.

Dr. Shannon Barrett brings an exceptional blend of academic excellence and professional expertise to the world of veterinary medicine. With a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Western University of Health Sciences, where she graduated with honors, and dual Bachelor degrees in Biological Sciences and Psychology, her depth of knowledge is extensive. A member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Barrett's insights and contributions to pet health have been featured in leading publications such as Rover, MarketWatch, and Newsweek.

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Veterinarian with a Passion for Educating Pet Parents

Pets change our lives for the better and we are always trying to do the same for them. This site is a combination of tips and product recommendations to enhance the lives of our pets and the people owned by them.  Thanks for stopping by!

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