Cats are unique creatures in that they are only half as domesticated as dogs are, which means they’ve retained their wild sense of smell. When they are lost, or they’ve moved to a new home, they can usually find their way back, based solely on smell, with some going hundreds of miles.
How far away can cats detect familiar smells?
A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times stronger than a human’s, and with over 200 million odor sensors in their noses, cats can detect smells a good distance further than humans can. Their sense of sight is not as strong, which is why their smell is so strongly developed, compensating for their sight.
Cats can even detect very small changes in humans and other animals. For more fascinating facts about a cat’s sense of smell, read on.
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A Cat’s Nose Is Its Most Important Organ
The total capacity of a cat’s nose far surpasses that of a human’s nose, making it the cat’s most important organ. They have over 200 million odor receptors in their nose, which means they will find an area they peed on after it’s been washed. Any rugs, clothing, or furniture that they go on will retain that scent even if you can’t smell it once it is washed.
A cat’s nose alerts them to danger, to food, water, or anything they need to know about, making it the most important organ on a cat. They can find food or stay away from dangerous situations through their noses.
Their sight, however, is much less developed, even though they are thought to be able to see in the dark. Their retinas will open or close, depending on the light, to allow them to see what they need to. But it’s their sense of smell that alerts them to whatever is in their path long before they see it.
Their Sense of Smell Is 14 Times Stronger Than a Human’s
A human has five million odor receptors in their nose, but compared with a cat’s nose, it is decidedly less active – 14 times less active, to be exact. If a cat is congested and cannot smell properly, they will not have much of an appetite because they cannot smell their food. Their sense of smell also affects how they taste the food, much like the way humans do.
So if a human can detect smells close by, such as car exhaust, dairy farms (if the wind is just right), or even the local fast food restaurant next to their home, then cats should be able to detect smells at least 14 times the distance. If a human can detect smells from a mile away, it should stand to reason that a cat can detect smells 14 miles away.
Why is their sense of smell so powerful? They have what is known as “Jacobson’s Organ” in their nose. When a cat smells something, they will sometimes open their mouth to get the scent fully. This organ allows a cat to learn the gender of another cat and if there is to be a natural disaster anytime soon.
Cats Can Differentiate Smells Down to the Smallest Detail
Cats, especially male cats, will mark their territory by spraying certain areas, leaving their scent to drive other cats away. Other cats will smell this marking and go elsewhere to avoid a conflict.
They can detect and interpret smells down to the smallest detail, such as a marked territory. They also know when you’ve been with other animals based on smelling your hands or clothing, especially if you gave the other animals affection.
If a female cat is in heat and not in an enclosed space like a house, a male cat will smell this and come running. They smell the pheromones that the female cat gives off and wants to be a part of this mating cycle.
Cats have difficulty adjusting to a new environment, too, due to the different smells than they are used to. If you bring a new cat into a home with other cats, the other cats’ unique urine scent might frighten them or stress them out a little bit. Or if you bring a cat into a home with dogs, it might cause them to recoil based on the smells the dog(s) have. Every scent in your home that you cannot smell might terrify a new cat.
Can a Lost Cat Find Its Way Home?
There are several stories about lost cats who found their way home several months or more after they went missing. Do they find their way home due to their sense of smell, or is it something else completely?
Cats seem to have a homing instinct, which several people think is their sense of smell. But is it that simple? Some theories suggest that cats can sense the Earth’s magnetic fields, which can guide them home. Cats’ ears and skin also contain iron, explaining how they have a decent sense of direction.
If your cat gets out somehow and doesn’t come back home for a time, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lost. Try putting out some tuna oil or their favorite food to lure them back home. Or you can put out an article of your clothing that has your scent on it, so your cat can find its way home.
Their Smelling Sense Can Keep Them Out of Harm’s Way
Along with their incredible sense of smell, their whiskers and ears work together to detect immediate threats. Their whiskers are like antennae that allow them to collect information about other cats, humans, or bigger animals coming through. Their ears rotate 180 degrees, which they direct towards the direction of a threatening sound.
But their sense of smell keeps them out of harm’s way, as any new smell might be a threat. They will avoid any new smells that don’t “smell right,” which could be a potential threat. The one thing that they don’t detect as a threat is anti-freeze due to its sweet smell. For that reason, you need to keep your cat away from this chemical at all costs. It will kill them in a matter of minutes.
How to Keep Your Outdoor Cat Safe
There are many threats to an outdoor cat, which causes them to live shorter lives than indoor cats. But there are things you can do to keep your outdoor cat as safe as possible.
- Create a cold-weather shelter that your cat can go to when the weather is too cold.
- Remove any toxic plants from your garden that your cat might eat.
- Beware of any cats that were “dumped” near your home, as they might fight with your cat over the territory.
- A fence may or may not keep your cat on your property, but it might be worth your while to put one up, just in case.
If you do not want or cannot have cats in the house, you can still watch out for them with these tips.
It’s not only their sense of smell that gives them information about the world. They have sensors in their fur, whiskers, and ears that keep them on their paws and helps them recognize when danger is near. You’ve probably seen cats puff up their back fur or double their tail size. That is a reaction to something they don’t like or understand.
There are many reasons why cats sniff everything, but the main reason is that they are learning about their world. Just as sight gives humans information, smelling gives cats and other animals information. It’s how they process the world around them.
- Tractive: Cat Sense of Direction: Are Cats Really Able to Find Their Way Back Home?
- Kitty Angels: If Your Cat Gets Out
- The Spruce Pets: A Cat’s Sense of Smell Is Used for All Aspects of Survival
- PetMD: How Can Cats Find Their Way Home If Lost?
- Love Meow: Cat Nose Knows
- PAWS Chicago: Cat Senses–How Felines Perceive the World
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.