If you share your life with a member of the feline species, it is sometimes easy to forget that your cat is not just another member of your own family. As a species, however, cats have their own very complicated system of social behaviour, one that has remained strong despite the influences of domestication. Vital to their interaction with each other is communication. They have several ways of doing this, one of the most important being by scent.
Cats are sensual animals and seem to enjoy touching and rubbing against objects and plants. But this is more than a pleasurable experience. It is a vital way for a cat to declare its social status.
All cats have scent glands on their cheeks, chin, lips, the pads of their feet and on the base of the tail, near the anus. They are used as a form of communication, a way for cats to give information about themselves and to gather it from other felines. These scent glands are also used for the important task of marking out territory.
When cats meet, they sniff each other’s head or anus. The main scent glands are in these areas and they contain lots of information about each individual, such as sexual and social status. Cats in a community rub their heads, cheeks and flanks against each other so that their scents merge and a group scent is consequently produced. This tells outsiders that the cat is a member of a ‘gang’.
Cats also rub the sides of their mouths against objects. This particular feline behaviour is called chinning and makes use of the large sebaceous scent glands along a cat’s lips and chin. It is a response to scent left by another cat, or you, its owner.
Given that cats are well-known for their fastidiousness, you may have found it puzzling to find unburied faeces. This is no accident. Male cats purposely leave them on the border of their territories as a very potent signal to other cats that they should know their place and keep their distance.
Q. Whenever I return home my house cat immediately starts sniffing me and rubbing himself against my legs. What can he smell?
Your cat is smelling your ‘scent’ because he wants to know exactly where you’ve been. Your cat doesn’t go outside, so he has made the inside of your home his territory. As you are part of it, he is exchanging scents with you to reassert membership.
Q. One of my cats keeps standing by the cat flap with her mouth slightly open. She refuses to use it. What is wrong?
She can smell a rival cat by ‘taste-scenting’. She is using an extra organ that humans don’t have. It lies under your cat’s nasal cavity and opens into her mouth. Scented air can’t get in unless she adapts her breathing and this accounts for her curious facial expression. Clean the flap and your cat will use it again.
- If a cat hisses at you, it may be because you have previously stroked another cat. The hissing cat picks up the scent and reacts aggressively.
- Intact males, in particular, will spray urine on the boundaries of their territory on a regular basis to warn off strange cats, and to continually assert their authority.
- Territorial scratching against trees and fences helps release scent from sweat glands in the cat’s pads, and this marks outs its territory.