January 10, 2017
Categories: Research, Animal Behavior

Most of us know dogs put a lot of store in how things smell, their noses are legendary for their sniffing ability. It’s not as widely known that the smells in a cat’s environment are a critical part of what makes a cat feel safe and free of stress, whether the cat is living in a home or is in an animal shelter.

We ask a lot of cats. We are increasingly keeping them indoors for their own safety, which offers them fewer opportunities to get away from unwelcome stimuli such as other pets in the family, noise, bright lights or crowding. One of the ways cats turn down the volume on stress is by scratching and rubbing to spread their own comforting scent throughout their environment; they do this with the sides of their faces as well as the pads of their paws.

However, we often deprive cats of that anxiety-reducing option in the name of cleanliness or because we fail to provide opportunities to appropriately scratch and rub. This is especially true in multi-pet households, but it isn’t just a problem for pet cats in homes, it may apply even more to cats in animal shelters.

One of the five freedoms of animal welfare is the freedom to express behaviors that are natural to the species. In addition to giving cats places to hide and elevated perches, shelters also need to think in terms of giving them opportunities to express their natural behaviors with scent-marking and smelling. Because familiar smells will make the cat feel safer, it is as bad to remove all scent sources — bedding, toys, scratching surfaces — from their shelter housing as it is to give them nowhere to hide. And yet that’s exactly what many shelters do, moving the cat from cage to cage or area to area, constantly washing their bedding and sanitizing their housing, never letting them create that comforting cocoon of familiar smells that can help turn down the volume on the stress all confined cats will feel.

The cat’s experience in the shelter isn’t the only animal welfare-specific angle on scent; by helping cat owners understand the importance of familiar smells that make cats feel safe, shelters can help keep them in the homes they already have.

Take, for example, the issue of failure to use the litter box, one of the most common reasons cats are relinquished to shelters. Probably at the top of the list of inappropriate places to urinate or defecate is the owner’s bed or pillows. But what  if the cat is simply driven by anxiety to trying to create a cocoon of her own personal smell the best way she knows how? If that’s the case, the understandable next step — changing the bedding to remove all traces of urine and feces — may make the problem worse, not better, by removing the very scents the cat was trying to use to reduce his or her anxiety. This can set off a vicious cycle that ends with the cat being exiled outdoors or surrendered at the shelter.

Of course, even the most dedicated cat lover isn’t going to sleep in a litterbox. Cat owners should change the bed and deodorize the mattress. They should also take the cat to the veterinarian to rule out a medical cause for any form of elimination outside the box. But if the vet gives the cat a clean bill of health, it’s a safe bet the cat’s behavior is communicating a sense of fear, anxiety or stress.

All forms of stress reduction should be investigated, including giving the cat better places to hide, high perches and safe access to outdoor “catios” if possible. Litter boxes should also be placed in areas where the cat feels secure when using them, and there should be multiple, frequently cleaned litter boxes in the home. But approaches like giving the cat places to spread his scent by rubbing and scratching, such as vertical scratching posts, as well as only washing their bedding and toys in rotation, need equal consideration.

In a November 2016 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, researchers looked at the relationship between scent and security for cats in homes, and how their findings might relate to settings such as animal shelters. In the article, they wrote:

Although the production of chemical signals, their perception through olfactory processes, and the behavioral response to these signals plays a central role in domesticated cat communication and behavior (especially social behavior), the function, scope and importance of these abilities are often not given the same level of attention dedicated to other domesticated species (e.g. dogs or pigs), which may lead some to erroneously underestimate the significance of this communication modality in cats.

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. Therefore the purpose of this review is to investigate how cats process and use chemical signals in social contexts, and identify ways this information can be used to improve cat welfare, including additional species-appropriate ways of reinforcing the human-cat bond.


Although the production, processing and behavioral response to chemical signals are important aspects of cat behavior, many cats today live in multi-cat and even multi-species households. Therefore, it is vital to examine how cats utilize these chemical signals while engaging in social behaviors. This knowledge can better inform human-cat and cat-cat interactions as well as aid in the security of cats within the home.

So when walking through your home or shelter and trying to see it through a cat’s eyes or hear it with his ears, don’t forget to smell it through his nose, too.

For more information:

Vitale Shreve, Kristyn R., Udell, Monique A.R., 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.