Cat Behavior 101,  Secrets of Cats

The Art of Smell Tasting

If you love cats, sharing makes us purrrr :-)

Cat have a far superior sense of smell from humans. Not only do cats smell with their nose but have a “secret super power” which includes the art of smell tasting. Scent, both human and feline is a long time interest of mine. I taught aromatherapy for many years including the anatomy and physiology of the olfactory system. It gave me respect for how remarkable a cat’s sense of smell truly is. Not only do they have more olfactory cells than us but they can turbo-charge their sniffing with help from a tiny organ above the roof of their mouth called Jacobson’s organ aka the vomeronasal organ (VNO).

When a cat (that includes the big cats like lions and tigers) wants to identify scents via pheromones (chemical messengers found in urine and scent glands that detect prey, food, potential mates or mark territories), they open their mouth to scent/taste the air in a Flehman’s response (from German flehmen, meaning to curl the upper lip). They drink in the scent slowly as if intoxicated, and in a sense they are. The scent molecules waft over the VNO and transmitted to hypothalamus, the part of the brain associated with sexual and social interaction.


That funny face is nothing to sniff at. The open mouth allows the scent to pass over the VNO and “fine tune” to ID incoming scents (as demonstrated by Domino in this series of images of scent communication. In this case there was a vole nearby.

Merlin flehmens when he smells Hubby’s underwear and Odin flehmens near certain tree stumps or when he catches a whiff of catnip. I’m joking about Domino’s subjective “good” reaction. Cats don’t have the same emotional response as humans when it comes to scent nor do they judge scents as good or bad unlike humans who have scent associations mingled with memories and emotions.

Cats might turn their nose up in disgust at a dirty cat litter box, a toxic substance, or tainted food but it’s a survival mechanism and anything else is anthropomorphizing.

What makes your cats flehmen?



  • Tony Tkach

    We hide treats under a box with the opening against the wall. The cats never push the box off the wall unless the treats are there – truly amazing!

  • Abby

    This is a wonderful explanation of how a cat smells.
    Mom came up with the idea that humans smell a cake baking, while cats smell the eggs,flour,butter, sugar all separately and probably even break it down finer than that.


  • Kathy Thompson

    We do the sniffee face too .Equines also do a version of the sniffees which often times includes a lip curl. We are so different yet so alike with our brethern.
    Purrs of the most magnificent kind to all. Skeeter and Izzy sniffee cats supreme! >^..^<

  • Marilia

    Often people think that cats are “smiling” when the mouth is open like the last photo and, in fact they are examining the “smell” of the site. I loved the post!

  • Fuzzy Tales

    We do that with the mom’s stinky socks. LOL. Actually, we do that a lot around the house. The mom likes to tell us that if something stinks, it’s our fault for making the smell in the first place. 😛

    P.S. Almost the entire CB is about anthropomorphizing! 😀

  • CATachresis

    You managed to get the photo illustration very well! Domino is becoming quite the media star! Great post and very informative for us lesser human mortals 🙂

  • Kathryn

    Great post. Am in Montreal, under the weather, or should I say, under the perigee moon. So exhausted. Can barely cope. Hope the moon starts waning soon. Way too bloated. Need to work. Back when I am feeling better.

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