Why do Cats Open Their Mouths When they Smell?

Cat Sniffing

Cats are unique creatures with some fascinating habits. Males shake their tails when they spray, females roll on the ground when they’re amorous and they knead your chest as though giving you a massage. It’s not always easy to understand why felines do the things they do, but some researchers have taken an interest in unraveling some of the mysteries behind cat behavior. One of the topics they researched is why cats open their mouths when they smell. That’s a behavior I’d never noticed until hearing about the studies. Upon observation, I discovered that my cats also open their mouths when they’re sniffing. Here is what is currently known about why cats open their mouths when they smell.

Why do Cats Open Their Mouths when they Smell?

Mental Floss explains that your cat may make unusual faces when he is sniffing, including keeping his mouth open for a long time. Cats often get a grimace on their faces as though they’ve just encountered a rotten smell that is disturbing to them. The cat may look disgusted by the aroma judging by the faces he makes, but that’s not necessarily the case. Cats open their mouths when sniffing because of an instinct that kicks in. It’s called the Flehmen response. It can cause a series of reactions including the cat peeling his lips back as though snarling, The Flehmen response is an inborn response in some mammals that allows them to better analyze a scent they find unfamiliar or unusual. Opening the mouth allows the aroma to travel to the roof of the mouth where the vomeronasal organ is located. Another name for the vomeronasal organ is Jacobson’s organ. It’s a collection of sensory cells that are part of the olfactory system, which is sensitive in felines and some other mammals. Cats have more of these receptors than most other mammals, and they make good use of them when they’re trying to figure out what it is they’re smelling.

What is Jacobson’s organ?

Jacobson’s organic is a sensory organ in the mouth. It connects to the nasal cavity of the cat. It is made up of two sacs filled with fluid. According to Pet Well Being, cats leave their mouths open while sniffing to draw the air along with the scent over the organ. It gives them a greater ability to gather more information about the scent, and process it to better understand what it is they’re smelling. The scent is how cats make sense of their world. The signals from the scent are sent to the brain of the cat for processing. The behavior signals that your cat is attempting to learn more about its environment.

What scents cause the Flehmen response to occur?

Cats do not always keep their mouths open or make strange faces when sniffing. Only certain scents cause the Flehmen Response to occur. One known substance is pheromones. All animals secrete pheromones through their glands. In cats, the pheromones get secreted through a network of glands. They’re in the anus, paws, and face. They use the pheromones to mark their territories and let other cats know they’re walking into their turf. When cats detect the scent of feces and urine from other cats, they may respond to the pheromones. Any surface contaminated by pheromones is subject to elicit this response in cats. You may not even know that the chemical is present.

Is there a difference between male and female cats?

Mother cats are prone to sniffing pheromones to help them keep a line on their kittens. In males, it’s often to determine if a female cat is in heat and if they’re in line for mating privileges. Another situation that can cause both male and female cats to make strange faces while sniffing is if they detect a foreign scent on the walls or the furniture. It’s not uncommon for cats to rub their faces on surfaces in the home. The behavior is a way of marking their territory. They’re establishing their dominance in the house. They may be letting other animals know that it’s their domain. Other cats may smell the scent left on surfaces and grimace while sniffing an unfamiliar scent. Urine marking is a trait that is more common in unneutered male cats than in females. The ladies rub their faces on objects and scratch surfaces. It leaves pheromones emitted from their faces and paws.

Who discovered the Flehmen Response?

Rover explains that the Flehmen Response is a discovery from centuries ago. A Dutch anatomist named Frederick Ruysch noticed the peculiar behaviors in cats during the 1600s. He investigated Jacobson’s organ and did some preliminary research on the topic, identifying the process accurately. The subject was picked up again in the 1930s when a German zoo director named the reflex the Flehmen Response. The name of the behavior comes from the German word Flehmen. It is translated into the English language to bare the upper teeth.

Final thoughts

The next time you see your cat sniffing with an open mouth, you’ll understand why he may make unusual faces. He is deep in concentration and on a mission to gather all the facts about a scent that he can discover. It’s a natural process for felines and some other animals. He’s not necessarily disgusted by the aroma. Your cat may become so lost in thought and concentration that his facial expressions may even take on the appearance of a snarl. It’s best not to disturb your cat when he is in the process of open-mouthed smelling because they’re merely investigating their environment so they can make more sense of it. Kitty grimaces can be entertaining once you know that it’s a perfectly natural behavior.

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