Many animals are sensitive to airborne chemicals in the environment. It is a matter of safety to be able to quickly and accurately detect particles that are the product of fire, for instance, or to sense the presence of a predator or the reek of decay. Smell is used to distinguish edibles and identify friends. Humans, along with most mammals, have a strong sense of smell.
Some humans abuse that sense through smoking or are unfortunate enough to lose sensitivity due to allergies chronically clogging the nasal passages. I recently read of a study that determined humans have very sensitive olfactory abilities, nearing those of dogs, that should not be dismissed. Our reactions to aromatic compounds often occur at a visceral level, escaping our conscious notice.
For our closest domestic companions, dogs and cats, scent is an important means of communication. We know this because both species have anal glands. Sniffing under the tail is a social behavior for cats and dogs. Observe a pet cat or dog as it encounters another member of the household menagerie. A quick sniff of the nether regions leads to a visible body relaxation for both animals if the newcomer is a known friend. There is almost a language of the bottom, as it were.
This sensitivity to aromatic organic compounds in cats was markedly demonstrated to me just yesterday. I am currently fostering two kittens who are living in our home with their very feral mother, Moon. The kittens are not feral, they adore humans. Both have a natural affinity for me since I was the first human to become a permanent fixture in their short young lives. One kitten is a black and white ball of adventure. I suspect it’s a boy, although it is so dark under the tail I’m still not totally sure. The other baby cat is a more sedate, pensive little yellow tiger female. She has always been very snuggly with me. She was the first to cuddle against my neck with a rattling purr.
This kitten is especially drawn to my lap. She will run to me when she is frightened or unsure and press for comfort against my inner thighs if I’m seated crossed-legged on the floor. That is her favorite place on my body. If I’m standing, she will settle on my foot. She sleeps contentedly in my lap. I find this sweet and heartbreakingly endearing since she will soon enough have to leave my foster home for a permanent place and people of her own. Imagine my despair when yesterday she suddenly wanted nothing to do with me!
It became quickly apparent that little girl kitten did not wish to be near me that morning. I could think of no reason for the altered behavior. She would not come close to me on the floor. If I tried to hold her, she struggled and squirmed mightily to escape my clutches. The kitten refused my every advance. Her little “brother,” meanwhile, behaved as usual: boisterous, reckless and full of antics. Little sister just sat morosely off to the side with her tail curled around her feet, staring at me. If I reached tentatively toward her, she fled in horror. This behavior lasted all day. By evening I was convinced the sweet lover kitten now hated me.
Late that night, as I was bathing, I was struck with sudden inspiration when I noticed the scent of my new perfume. It was the first day I had worn Lancome Hypnose. Since the kittens arrived, four weeks ago, I’ve only used one scent, a lily-of-the-valley sort of fragrance, JMC, Jessica McClintock. Could it be the kitten’s response was triggered by the change in fragrance? This morning I applied JMC again. The main pulse point I use is the area of the inner thigh that corresponds to the underarm.
The change in the kitten’s response was amazing! From her first whiff of me, everything was alright again. She cozied up and even rubbed her tiny nose on mine. When we sat on the floor, she claimed my lap immediately. Her relief at the return to normal was obvious. The good human was back. Not the evil, strange smelling imitation that assaulted her the day before with demands for affection.
This lesson on the sensitivity of the six-week-old kitten nose is not lost on me. In the future I will swap perfumes slowly, blending the fragrances for a couple days, so the little feline can still recognize me. I will also vary the scents I use to teach the kittens that the same human may have a different smell and still be safe. We do not have anal glands (thank goodness!!) but we each do have a particular aroma that is memorized by our furry housemates. I suspect that our scent, more than any other feature, is what our cat and dog pets rely upon to distinguish their humans.