This behavior unfairly gave the cat the false reputation of sneering at people

Until the internet really took hold and began to genuinely educate millions of cat owners about cat behaviour, there was a misconception about a strange aspect of feline behavior when every so often a cat would be seen to pause and adopt a curious sneering expression as if disgusted about something or that the cat was turning up their nose at an unpleasant smell such as urine deposited by another cat.

Flehmen response in a domestic cat
Flehmen response in a domestic cat. Screenshot from video below.
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People still misinterpret this special form of feline behaviour which the species shares with other animals such as horses.

There was a time when this behaviour was one of many reason to hate the domestic cat. It combined with the impassive face of the cat to give the impression to people who were unsure about domestic cats that they were aloof.

The interpretation that cats were turning their noses up at a smell was almost diametrically opposed to that which was happening.

Yes, I am referring to a strange grimace known as the flehmen response in which the cat fully appreciates a delicious fragrance. And this is known because when female cats are in a “strong sexual condition” (the words of Dr. Desmond Morris) it elicits a powerful grimacing in male cats. When the female is not in a sexual condition, it does not produce the same strong male response. And the strong male response comes from the fact that the scent he smells is very interesting because it tells him that she is ready to mate. And one thing that male cats love to do is to mate with females! It’s exciting.

Vomeronasal organ in cats
Vomeronasal organ in cats. Image in public domain.

The response involves the following elements:

  • The cat stops in their tracks;
  • they raise their head slightly;
  • drawback their upper lip and open their mouth a little.

Inside the half-opened mouth, you might if you’re very lucky be able to see the tongue flickering or licking the roof of the mouth. The cat sniffs and it seems that he or she is in an almost trancelike state of concentration for a few moments.

The breathing rate slows and the cat might even hold their breath for several seconds after inhaling air while all the time they stare in front of themselves “as if in a kind of reverie”.

Dr. Maurice likens it to “a hungry man inhaling the enticing smells emanating from a busy kitchen”. And he says that that would not be too far from the truth but there is an important difference. It’s because the cat is employing a special item of feline anatomy, a small structure situated in the roof of the mouth.

A small tube opens into the mouth just behind the upper front teeth. It is known as the vomeronasal or Jacobsen’s (Jacobson’s) organ – as you might know now after many years of discussion about this aspect of feline behaviour online.

It is about 1.2 cm (0.5 inch) long and it is highly sensitive to airborne chemicals.

It is a “taste-smell organ”. It’s very important to cats when they want to read “odour-news” which has been deposited around their home range (territory).

Dr. Desmond Morris explains that “during human evolution, when we became increasingly dominated by visual input to the brain, we lost the use of our Jacobsen’s organs, of which only a tiny trace now remains.”

But for the cat is of great significance. It explains why they present to humans sometimes “the strange, snooty, gaping expression they adopt occasionally as they go about the social round”.

Note: I have been liberal with quoting Dr. Desmond Morris because he explains the source of behaviour so accurately and elegantly. The quotes come from his book CAT WORLD A FELINE ENCYCLOPAEDIA.

Flehmen response. You see the cat smelling something interesting on the furniture where she is lying and then analyses it accurately using their Jacobsen’s organ.

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