New Scientist reports on a study which tells us that scented human objects alone do not reassure domestic cats when their caregiver is away. I’ll explain what that means. There is a general belief that if you leave an item of used clothing with your cat while you are away it can reassure them. This is because domestic cats are very reliant upon their sense of smell. They recognise people and other cats through their body odour. Domestic cats check on their food by how it smells. A lot of identification of objects, in the cat world, is through their nose.
However, when the scientists in this study asked cat owners to place an object that smelled of them in an empty room with their cat, the cats vocalised their displeasure when their human caregiver left the room, but they did not rely upon the object left in the room to seek reassurance. So, when the owner returned, they obviously were keen to see them but while they were away the cats “generally paid no attention to the scented object and didn’t act any calmer than when they were alone without the object”. In other words, the scented object which was e.g., a shoe, a nightshirt or blanket, did make a difference to their general sense of well-being when alone.
The test was carried out in an “unfamiliar testing room”. This sounds very sterile and anything unfamiliar in terms of environment is going to stress a cat to a certain extent. So, I’m not sure that this study is entirely accurate because the background situation was not conducive to ensuring that a cat responds normally.
However, if one takes the study on face value as accurate, we have to conclude that an object of used clothing by itself is not enough to calm a cat when their caregiver is not around. It might even remind them that their caregiver isn’t around with them.
That said, my personal experience clearly indicates (and I’m sure other people will agree) that cats love the scent of used clothing or other caregiver-scented belongings and lie on these items when the caregiver is in the home with them. For example, at night my cat sometimes sleeps on my clothes which are at the base of my bed. He might sleep against my legs or against me but because I’m moving this can prove to be unsatisfactory. Therefore, he retreats to the clothes and lies on those. This clearly indicates that the scent from them is reassuring to him. The difference is that I am also near him.
The conclusion is that if the caregiver is in the vicinity of the domestic cat the domestic cat benefits from scented clothes but in a sterile, alien environment the same benefits do not occur.
This may have an impact on, for example, when people take their cat to a boarding cattery when they go away on holiday. The normal method is to leave some item of clothing or bedding with which they are familiar to help keep them calm. This may not work based upon this study.
The study title is not mentioned by Scientific American so I can’t link to it as I can’t find it. Sorry.
SOME MORE ON SCENT: