Dear Doctor: The Nose Knows


Q. How strong is a cat’s sense of smell?

Jonathan Puccio
Cincinnati, Ohio

Dear Mr. Puccio,

A. cat’s sense of smell leaves ours in the dust. In fact, sniffing scents is a cat’s primary way of reading his world. The feline nose has about 200 million odor-sensitive cells. The human nose, by contrast, has about 5 million. Cats also have a scent-detecting organ in the roof of the mouth that humans lack. It’s called the vomeronasal organ. When a cat wrinkles his muzzle, lowers his chin, and lets his tongue hang out a little bit, he is opening the passage to that organ and allowing scent to be perceived by the brain in a way that is lost on us. It’s like having a second nose that operates in tandem with the one on his face.

For comparison’s sake, cats have a sense of smell that is 14 times better than that of people, meaning they live in a world of odors of which we are only dimly aware. While people can stop and smell the roses, cats can stop and smell the people who stopped to smell the roses — long after the people have walked away. And when you think the smell of, say, fish has long left your kitchen, your pet can still detect it.


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