The first language a kitten learns is that of smell. It is blind, deaf and defenceless but it has well-developed senses of smell and touch (including warmth detection) to guide it to the mother cat’s nipple. It has been proposed that each kitten recognises its own scent on the nipple and aims for the same nipple each feeding time. However in my experience, the larger, more vigorous kittens usually head for the nipples nearer the back legs, so this ‘own nipple’ theory may just be kittens trying to get to the most productive nipples. In litters with only 1 or 2 kittens, the front nipples may be completely unused.
The mother identifies her kittens by their individual scent and by her own scent on them.
Cats have scent glands on the chin, lips (in the corners), temples and at the base of the tail. Each cat has its own scent signature. When it washes, a cat transfers its scent from these glands to its fur. They use this scent to mark areas and objects around them, other cats, humans and other animals in the household. This helps create a communal smell. A new cat must literally rub up to superior members of the group to mix their scents before becoming an accepted member of the group. Its home territory also has a smell profile and any new smell – another cat or even a new piece of furniture or a scent carried in your shoes or clothing – can cause insecurity and lead to increased marking activity. When a cat scratches it leaves both a visual marker and a scent marker from its paw-pads. It will mark its territory by rubbing its chin or cheeks onto upright objects and by spraying or depositing faeces. Scent is so important that blind cats can navigate around their indoor territories using a combination of memory and scent trails.
Cats who are familiar and friendly with each other often display a greeting ritual. They rub their head, flank and tail against the other cat or person to exchange odours. So although it may look cute when your cat rubs on you, it’s essentially marking you as its own. The tail is held straight up so that the other cat/person can sniff the anal glands. When stroked, you may think your cat is raising its rump to look appealing. It’s actually inviting you to sniff its anal glands, which in cat language, means it likes and trusts you as its making itself vulnerable to you.
Marking with scent
Unfortunately, form the human point of view, cats use their own form of aroma therapy to both advertise their status and territory and to reassure themselves.
Tomcats and entire females in heat, spray pungent urine to mark their territories and to advertise their sexual status. The urine is sprayed roughly at nose level, making it distinctive to other cats. In areas where territories overlap, tomcats try to spray over other cats’ scent markings as well as refreshing their own scent markings.
Inappropriate marking, from a human point of view, can also occur in neutered cats, and it usually a sign that the cat feels insecure, it is in effect trying to make its environment, and you smell more like itself. Particular targets can be clothing and beds.
Faeces are also a scent-laden marker. Although many cats fastidiously bury their wastes, they may use faeces to mark territory – a behaviour known as middening. Middening cats deposit their faeces in a prominent spot (often on top of a tuft of grass or the middle of a path), or unfortunately beds, often choosing the same place again and again to advertise their continued presence. A cat which has been upset by an intruder or unusual event middens or urinates in the place which smells most strongly of its human family, reinforcing the family bond, chastising a cat for doing this will only make the animal more anxious and more likely to repeat the ’offence’.
When a cat scratches a tree, scratching post, wallpaper or doormat this performs several functions. As well as stropping the claws and exercising the leg muscles, it deposits scent from the paws onto the object. The height of the scratch marks may be important in communicating the cat’s size and strength to any potential challenger. It’s a natural behaviour, and providing an appealing site, such as a sisal covered cat scratching post for the cat to exhibit the behaviour may save furniture and carpets if you have a cat that is fixated on scratching. Like most things, the urge to exhibit this behaviour varies between individual cats.
Spraying, middening and scratching ensure that cats are communicating with each other even when not physically present. Though these behaviours may seem anti social to humans, to cats these scent markers are signposts, boundary markers and personal advertisements.