Cats are much cleaner animals than dogs, but much like their canine companions, they aren’t above rolling around in something that smells absolutely terrible – usually our shoes, sweaty clothes, or feet.
Why do cats seem to love smelly things? If they are self-cleaning animals who care about their hygiene, why would they want to roll around on something that smells bad?
As we have discussed in previous blogs, cats use their sense of smell as a key instrument for navigating their environment. With heightened olfactory senses, they can use their sense of smell to track their prey, avoid predators, and communicate with other cats. Did you know felines have roughly 5x more scent receptors than a human? That’s approximately 100 million receptors! Imagine what life would be like with 5x the ability to smell.
Back to Smelly Things
So, what about a sweaty shirt, some old socks or your dirty old shoes? If your cat has such a heightened sense of smell, why would they be so interested in your smelly stuff?
One theory as to why cats do this is because it smells like you. You are their owner and they have strong feelings about you! In the case of your socks or smelly old shirt, it is likely the high concentrations of your sweat and scent are what’s attracting the cat. These higher concentrations of sweat have larger amounts of chemical stimuli contained within, which smell very strongly of… you!
As far as your shoes go, the bottom of your shoe, and to a lesser degree, the top of them, will be full of smells from outside. The parking lot, grass, soil, anything. Cats can sense all of this. If you walk through a plant that is part of the mint family, chances are your cat will roll around on your shoes like they are filled with catnip.
In short, what is likely true in most cases is that your cat just loves your scent and finds comfort in it. When your clothes are sweaty, and especially in the case of our shoes, your scent is heavily concentrated and to your cat, that’s the good stuff.
The Flehmen Response
We couldn’t talk about cats smelling nasty things without discussing the Flehmen Response – that strange vacant look your cat makes with their mouth dropped open. The Flehmen response is something that happens when your cat wants a particularly thorough dose of a scent.
They often employ this when smelling something new or something they want more information on. This response allows them to detect more chemical stimuli as the scent passes through their vomeronasal organ (also called the Jacobson’s Organ). Think of this organ as somewhere between smelling and tasting, in addition to their already strong sense of smell.
The look a cat makes during the Flehmen response is absolutely hilarious and worth checking out on YouTube if you have the time. There are numerous videos of cats sniffing their owners’ shoes or feet and then staring into the camera, mouth agape, looking truly disturbed. The Flehmen response is harmless though, and simply just another funny moment given to us from the natural world!