Cat Scent Exchange

Cat scent exchange is well observed but little understood. That is a personal view. Is it purely functional in nature or is it about expressing emotion or a mixture of both? We tend to think of animal behavior as mainly functional - supporting survival. If a form of behavior helps in survival it will happen. But the question is, do animals operate on a higher plain? We know cats have emotions.

As cats have an excellent sense of smell they rely on it or use it much more than we do. As humans with a relatively poor sense of smell we are unable, as yet, to fully understand olfactory communication in cats. We just don't get it. Although we observe it.

A cat's sebaceous glands are distributed throughout his or her body particularly the head (think head-butt), perioral region (around the mouth), perianal area and between the toes (think scratching and depositing scent at the same time).  Cat sniffing provides "olfactory clues" - information about the source of the smell.

Scent exchange - giving and receiving. Photo by eyesore9 on Flickr

We also know our cat rubs against us. This happens when we feed our cat, for example. Our cat is happy that he is about to be fed. In response, and instinctively, he rubs his head against our leg. Or rubs the side and rear part (perianal) of his body against you. He deposits his scent onto you. He can smell it. You can't. Why does he like his scent on you? And why do it when he is happy? Cat to cat greetings include mutual scent exchange when the cats are friendly with each other; a merging of each cat's scent with the other's.


In the video above, Magic, the cat obviously has a close bond with Martin Stucki the person who Magic is rubbing against. Magic loves the smell of Martin's shoes and seems to want to collect some of the scent from them and at the same time deposit his scent on them  - scent exchange.

It is said that when a cat's scent is on you or an inanimate object he feels more at home as he smells himself everywhere. It creates a more friendly environment for the cat. I can understand that. That is more a functional aspect to scent exchange. In this instance I would call it scent depositing as that would appear to be the purpose. It makes life feel better. Note: when my cat is about to be fed he will also deposit scent from his head onto the end of the bed.

Apparently when a cat rubs against a human's legs it is a transference of the behavior seen between cats when one of the them returns from a hunt. As we are feeding our cat perhaps we are seen by our cat as the hunter/mother returning with food for the kitten; our cat retains a kitten's behavior. Social bonding is reinforced with this kind of rubbing (called allorubbing).

But when cats merge their scent in scent exchange greetings by rubbing their heads together is it a bit like us, a man greeting a close female friend, touching cheeks and doing an air kiss. In terms of appearance it is close to what we see when cats indulge in scent exchange on greeting. In fact you could argue humans are exchanging scent as their cheeks touch. But that is not the purpose. The purpose is to make contact. Cats who scent exchange are probably, primarily concerned with making contact and touching each other just like humans. Perhaps the scent exchange element of contact is akin to our kiss - a form of magnifying the emotional pleasure derived from the need for contact. Making contact more intimate. That is an entirely personal thought. The books don't refer to it that way.

In scent exchange, if one of the objectives of each cat is also to touch the the other cat it is a strong sign of friendship and a way of reinforcing that friendship. It is primarily emotional in character. Although, through friendship a cat is more able to survive. You will see friendly cats lie next to each other. Touching each other is important to a cat. Is it as important to a cat as it is to us? I would answer; yes. We should respect the cat more because they operate at a higher level than many people recognize.

You will find that wildcats deposit scent from their perioral region onto rocks and trees on trails. This is not about friendship but about providing information about the cat's presence to other cats in the area. Clearly a cat's scent is multipurpose. It allows for a form of communication that is as important and as strong as using the voice.

Associated page: Cat Spraying.

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