Pine tree sap on his paw left my cat befuddled

This is a minor experience both for me and my cat but it clearly indicates the major importance in the life of domestic cats of their sense of smell. He came in yesterday with some pine tree sap on his left forepaw. He wandered around the house looking slightly befuddled. He made an attempt to lick it off with minor success as it is very gluey and it was stuck between his toes. He jumped on my bed (this was about 5 AM in the morning) but couldn’t recognise the smells. Up until then he always settled down on my lap while I worked on my website. On this occasion he didn’t. He didn’t because he couldn’t recognise the surroundings. Yes, of course, he could recognise them visually but he could not confirm that these were friendly surroundings through the scent given off by the bed clothes. He wandered off looking bemused.

My cat settled down after being befuddled by pine sap on his paw

My cat settled down after being befuddled by pine sap on his paw. Pic: MikeB


His bemused behaviour lasted for several hours. I tried to wipe away the sap from his toes with some success but it remained and he complained. Over the next several hours he tried again to lick it off and gradually he was successful. His mood changed in line with his success. And now he’s back to normal, sitting on my lap while I dictate this. There is still a faint smell of pine sap coming from him but not enough to mask his sense of smell.

My assessment of this slightly bizarre and sudden change in behaviour is that the pine sap, which is quite a strong-smelling liquid, masked his sense of smell. He was unable temporarily to pick up all the nuances of the odours that surround him on a day-to-day basis. It confirmed to me that domestic cats are heavily reliant upon this constant source of information which is reassuring to them. They are constantly checking their surroundings through the odours that are given off.

That’s why you will see them sniffing the cat flap when they go through it, they sniff their food before they eat it, they sniff your hand before they lick it, they sniff your lap before they sit down on it, and so on and so forth. Everything is checked with their sense of smell and the odours picked up are cross-checked with their memory bank and categorised as recognised or unrecognised and are safe or as unsafe.

Cat sniffing a person's hand

Cat sniffing a person’s hand. Picture: PoC.

It’s important that cat owners realise this. It’s a reason why, for example, Jackson Galaxy advises that the cat litter tray should have a whiff of the cat and his or her urine and faeces in it. In other words, it should not be scrupulously cleaned and disinfected all the time. Indeed, perfumes should not be used on it although this may suit the owner. And the cat litter itself should not be perfumed. It needs to smell of a cat toilet in order to be a place where a cat can go to the toilet. It needs to be recognisable as a cat toilet through their sense of smell and not just visually. This may help avoid the dreaded ‘inappropriate elimination’.

It is the reason why Jackson Galaxy advises that people should allow their cat to come into the bedroom and onto the bed. I’ve mentioned it before but beds are what Jackson Galaxy calls “scent soakers”. What he means is that they are soaked in the scent of the cat’s caretaker and guardian. This makes it attractive to a domestic cat and reassuring because they want to be immersed in that scent. Let them be immersed in it.

And it is the reason why cats rub against us. They want to deposit the scent from their glands onto us so they merge with us in terms of odours. We become one with them, and in being one we are best friends. And in being best friends they are more content and reassured that they are living in a friendly environment. I think we need to always work on this aspect of the relationship as my distinct impression is that it is quite easy to miss this objective.


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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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