Communication is vital for all species in the animal kingdom. It is how animals socialize, protect themselves, find a mate, build relationships, and express themselves. For humans, speech and body language are the two predominant forms of communication. However, some species have other means of communication. One form of communication used by some animals is producing a scent. Animals use their scent to mark their territory, find a mate, and send messages to both family members and enemies. Cats are one of the animals that use this form of communication, and they do this in various ways. One method is urine spraying, which involves marking a spot by spraying a small amount of pheromone filled urine. They do this to let other cats know that this is their territory or to attract a mate.
Another way they communicate using their scent is by rubbing their bottom against things to leave secretions from their anal sac. These secretions are filled with a pungent scent. If you are willing to get close enough to your cat’s butt, you can probably smell this scent for yourself. It has long been believed that cat’s produce this scent themselves, but new research suggests otherwise. According to Popular Science, scientists have recently conducted research into the smell produced in a cat’s anal sac. Biologists wanted to learn more about what created the scent, why cat’s each have a different scent, and what messages these scents can send.
It was the search for the answers to these questions that led a team of researchers to conduct a study relating to the odiferous compounds that are released by male cats. This team was based at the Genome Center at the University of California. Project scientist David Coil led this study. He says that felines use a variety of volatile chemicals for signaling and that it is likely that cats do not make them all. In fact, the research shows that the compounds produced by male cats are actually produced by bacteria living in their anal sacs, says Phys.org.
This is an area of research that has been of interest to scientists for some time, and previous research has inspired the current study. Postdoctoral researcher Holly Gantz previously studied how microbes interact with the health, biology, and behavior of cats in research known as the KittyBiome Project. This inspired Coil and his team of researchers to expand on this study to learn more about the microbes found in the anal sacs of felines.
At the center of their research was a Bengal cat whose owner had volunteered him to participate in the study. This breed was chosen because they are a cross between a domestic cat and a wild cat. The team took samples of the secretions from his anal sac for extensive analysis. The first step was for the researchers to culture the microbes in the secretions. They discovered that 83percent of the microbes were a bacterium called Tessaracoccus. This is a common bacterium that is found in dirt, human digestive systems, and the rhino guts. The second-most prominent bacteria discovered was Bacteroides, which is another common bacterium found in mammals. Also in the top five bacteria found in the anal sac secretions were finegoldia, peptoniphilus, and anaerococcus. A combination of these five bacteria totaled 98 percent of the bacteria found in the anal sac.
In addition to identifying the different bacterium in the anal sacs, the researchers also identified 127 chemicals in the secretions. Of these, 51 can contribute to odor. Another interesting fact is that 11 of the compounds are commonly found in the anal sacs of other mammals. Furthermore, they also identified fatty acids in the sample. The team used a variety of techniques during the study, including DNA sequencing and chemical odor analysis. It was the former that was responsible for identifying the different bacteria. The latter was used to identify volatile compounds that can cause strong or bad odors. For this part of the research, the team was supported by Professor Christina Davis. She allowed them to use her laboratory, which is part of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Her laboratory gave the team access to advanced technology.
The results have confirmed that the smell produced by a cat’s butt is not produced by the cat, as originally believed. According to this study, the smell is produced by the microbes that are living within the anal sac. The team has now published the results of their study in PLOS ONE. It seems they have potentially solved some of the mysteries of smelly cat butts. While these results are interesting and very revealing, it has raised almost as many questions as it has answered. They still have questions to ask about many aspects of the anal sac scent that this research has not answered. For example, they want to learn more about the individual smells produced by cats, as there is not a generic smell produced by felines and they each have their own scent. They also want to learn more about any changes that take place over time within the bacterial community. There are now plans to extend their research to find out this information.
The findings of Coil and his team have been supported by other ongoing research into the scents produced in the anal sacs of other mammals. Phys.org reports that a similar study was undertaken into the secretions from the anal sacs of meerkats, which are a mammal in the mongoose family that is completely unrelated to cats. Like cats, meerkats use scent as a form of communication. This study was led by Christine Drea, who is a professor of evolutionary biolgy based at Duke University. The findings of her study also showed that the scents are produced by microbes and not by the animals.