Dear Pet Column
My cat makes often makes this weird face when she is sniffing an object and looks up with her lips curled and slightly back, a look of utter disgust / confusion / concern that makes me laugh heartily. I call it “cat stinky face” and my friends say their cats do it too. Why do cats do this and should I be concerned?
So “cat stinky face” is a real thing with a real scientific name, flehmen. As a cat myself I can assure you there is nothing alarming about this gesture. Although it looks comical it's actually highly purposeful and interesting.
Yes, the flehmen response looks like a cat frozen with its mouth open, with their lips rolled back over the teeth to resemble a sneer. Although we cats can have strong opinions and will communicate them to you, this cat stinky face isn’t necessarily a snooty reaction but a type of sniffing. It is unique in that, while “flehmening”, instead of using our nostrils we are inhaling the air through our open mouths.
Anthrozoologist John Bradshaw shared with Slate magazine that the flehmen response opens up two small ducts, also known as the nasopalatine canals, on the roof of an animal’s mouth behind the incisors. These ducts then go through the roof of the mouth and join up with the vomeronasal organ which functions as an auxiliary olfactory bulb of sorts.
Bradshaw shared that some scientists believe the flehmen response does something that’s between the sense of smell and taste (I knew it - we DO have a sixth sense!). So the flehmen isn’t an automatic way to take in smells, as one does through involuntarily breathing, but it is more of a voluntary and controlled process – serving a specific purpose.
So what is the purpose of cat stinky face (so much for fun to say than “flehmen”)? It is believed that we do this to detect chemical stimuli, such as pheromones, that are present in urine and feces, or areas that cats have marked with scent glands,Male cats usually flehmen more than female cats as it is mostly used in relation to mating and using scents to determine compatibility and if timing is right (wink wink).
A few more fun flehmen facts:
It is not restricted to cats. Along with domestic cats, large cats such as lions and tigers, also make the face as do horses, giraffes, buffalos, goats and llamas.
Cats actually have better vomeronasal organs than dogs. An average house cat has 30 different receptors in that organ, whereas a hound dog has a measly nine. (I knew we were more talented than dogs!)
Humans used to have the vomeronasal organs necessary for a flehmen response — but they got phased out in the evolutionary process (what - did compatibility and timing no longer matter?)
So, keep enjoying those cat stinky faces and take some photos and send them in to Second Chace to share the good laughs!
My name is Newby, although sadly I am no longer new to the shelter, or even the Pet Column for that matter. I have been waiting and waiting for my new home. Not sure why it is taking so long. I am handsome, only 5 years young and have a fabulous attitude and love people. I do enjoy funny faces and promise to bring many smiles to your face if you adopt me.