What Exactly is a Cat Flehmen Response?

There is a face that a cat makes that have many cat owners baffled as to what the face is, and what it means. When a cat sniffs something and gets a concerning look, or maybe a look of surprise on his face over whatever it is they just smelled, it may have caught you by surprise and made you even a bit concerned as to if everything was okay with your little feline. The look makes your cat look upward a bit with slightly curled-back lips. It is the look of response to the smell, and it has a scientific name, “The Flehhmen Response.” But why does this look happen anyways? Well, here’s why.

The Flehman look can make cat parents laugh when they see it. Many refer to it as the “Stinky look,” because it really looks as if they’ve discovered something stinky and it has disgusted them. When they get this look, their lips literally curl up slightly over their teeth and their lip is probably raised up on one side, in a disgusted look. They become frozen in their tracks, so-to-speak, and appear to be sneering.

Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut explains this response as a cat’s reaction to changes in smell around the house or their environment, such as, even a house guest, or a new toy, a new piece of furniture, food they’ve not ever eaten before, just about anything, can trigger the response. They are creatures of habit and want everything the same, so when new smells enter their environment, like a dog, they sniff things out. Well, although they are inhaling, the inhaling isn’t really done through their nostrils like humans or dogs. They inhale through their open mouths.

When cats inhale through their mouths, according to Anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, this opens two small ducts known as nasopalatine canals, which are located on the roof of the animal’s mouth, just behind their incisor teeth. These little ducts go through the roof of the mouth and meet up with the vomeronasal organ, (a.k.a. the Jacobson’s organ). This functions as a, sort of, auxiliary olfactory bulb.

Some scientists think that the Flehiman response is a sort of sixth sense because it a response that is both a sense of smell and taste. Basically, the Flehman response for cats, is an automatic way for them to take in smells the same way that we do with our breathing. And cats actually have better vomeronasal organs than that of their counter friend, the dog. Cats have 30 different receptors in this organ, whereby, a hound dog, known for his prominent sniffing abilities, only has nine.

When it comes to cats using this sense, typically a male cat will use it more than a female cat. There is something having to do with mating that causes males to use this sense more than females, according to Dr. Gibbons, and it all has something to do with males using it to sense if the timing is right with a female they’ve come in contact with. and if they sense a sort of compatibility.

In the end, this is a harmless act by cats and if you ever see your cat wearing this expression, just know that they have come in contact with a smell that caused them to react this way. They have not only smelled it, but essentially tasted it, an are trying to decipher what it is. All you need to do is ignore the look, or giggle at it, maybe snap a pic, if you can, because it is quite funny when you catch them wearing the look.




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