If you live with a cat, you've probably noticed his sense of smell far exceeds your own. In fact, the average housecat's scent-ability is up to 14 times that of the average human.
A newborn kitten, absolutely blind, navigates his way to his mother through scent, and will continue to use that extremely talented nose throughout his life to seek out everything from food to potential mates.
Cats, and some other animals such as elephants, dogs, goats, pigs as well as snakes and lizards, have a vomeronasal system, also known as "Jacobson's organ," a tiny spot located on the roof of the mouth that helps give smell a whole new dimension.
Have you ever noticed the sneering facial expression your cat makes when he smells something particularly interesting? The top lip opens slightly and curves back, and the whiskers lift up as if she's about to sneeze.
That facial expression is called a Flehmen response and it's used to activate the Jacobson's organ to give him the full bouquet of smell. It might be the wonderful scent of a potential mate or something really distasteful to him. His Jacobson's organ needs to be activated and the Flehmen response is the control switch.
It's believed lizards activate their Jacobson's organ by tapping their nose gently on the ground, snakes flick their tongues and elephants do it by "chemosensory stimuli", which involves a structure found at the tip of their trunks to activate the full scent experience that humans can't possibly fathom.
Do people have it? I told my husband about Jacobson's organ and he insists he always opens his mouth slightly when he really wants to get a good whiff of something. Maybe he's a throwback to our ancient ancestors who needed this organ for their survival or maybe he just likes to think opening his mouth enhances the scent experience.
According to Peter Burnham, department of physiology at University of Bristol, writing for The Naked Scientist (www.nakedscientist.com), the Jacobson's organ "senses chemical stimuli such as marks, which tell animals about the sex and identity of other members of their species, often called pheromones."
There is a tiny area of the human nose that some people believe may be a Jacobson's organ, but according to Burnham, it's highly unlikely since it bears no resemblance to the organ found in other animals and there are no nerves connecting it to the brain.
He writes, "moreover, there are genes that are vital for the function of (Jacobson's organ) in other species but they don't work any more in humans. They became redundant during human evolution. That happened at about the time when the new and old world monkeys split off from a common ancestor in Africa many millions of years ago. So it seems very unlikely that the Jacobson's organ can have any function at all in humans."
Cats use their advanced sense of smell to locate prey, as well as check out the health and vicinity of a potential mate, identify a strange cat or other animal in his territory and analyze any unusual or odours.
You'll also notice a cat often sniffs his litter box after he's used it. While it looks a little compulsive and weird to us, the cat is doing it to make sure his own scent is completely covered. It's an instinctive survival technique - he wants to make sure his trail won't be discovered by predators.
Now that you know your cat's sense of smell is 14 times greater than yours, you'll understand why he sniffs and backs away from harsh household cleaners and room deodorizers. And, regardless of how much you paid for your favourite perfume, there's nothing like a good old fashioned Flehmen response from the kitty to make you re-think that second or third spritz.
Jacque Newman is a consultant for Dogs Dogs Dogs, a five-time Maxwell award winner from Dog Writers Association of America, and moderator of Dog Diabetes online forum. Her writing has appeared in Readers Digest, Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, For Love of Cats and on several pet-related websites. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org