This is a slightly bizarre but also interesting question thrown up by a Google search. You won’t find the answer in the best reference books on the wild cat species because it is not something that interests scientists. However, it does appear to interest non-scientists! Especially Joe Biden! He has a reputation for sniffing women’s hair 🙂 . Am I allowed to say that?
I would expect big cats, by which we mean the jaguar, lion, tiger and leopard, to have a body odour which is not too dissimilar to that of the domestic cat but I’m probably fantasising slightly. The domestic cat’s natural body is slightly nutty and quite pleasant in reflecting their cleanliness.
The website quorum.com provides some answers to the question. However, we don’t have a definitive answer which is what I would expect. A person (believed male) who lives with a jaguar says that she (her cat is female) is virtually odourless and her breath is also odourless. She must have good oral health! Raphael Villafane says that he feeds his big cat organic meat. This is why his cat is odourless. Big cats in the wild will eat organic meat and therefore they should by extension have a body scent which is almost odourless.
I would question that argument. I’m sure that big cats have a natural body odour but it will not be disagreeable. We know that all cats, wild and domestic, are pretty fastidious about cleaning themselves which helps to create a pleasant body odour. But I would also argue that all wild animals except those known to be smelly for defensive reasons have a fairly neutral and unassuming body odour. The wild cat makes up for this by spraying highly pungent urine against trees and marking objects with scent from their scent glands in their skin.
A person who says that she “speaks cat fluently” (someone who likes cats!) said that she got close to a snow leopard and was able to smell it. She says that there was a slight musky smell. She also claims that lions paws have a sweet odour.
Another contributor claims that when she went to a local big cat sanctuary as a volunteer, at a time when she was a student, she noticed that the sanctuary smelled like a laboratory where they keep mice. Comment: that may be because you get that “zoo smell” in places where there are captive animals because the staff have to disinfect the place and prevent the transmission of disease between animals. I feel pretty confident that she is referring to that source of smell rather than the body odour of big cats.
An amusing contribution from another person on the quorum.com website says that the lions seem to smell like lemons and pee! That may be a reference to urine being sprayed around the place combined with attempts to neutralise it and we know how pungent the smell of cat – particularly large wild cat – urine is.
My conclusion is that all the wild cat species smell similarly and the smell will be quite pleasant or not unpleasant and fairly neutral. They will not have a strong body odour like an unwashed person. They are fastidious creatures and they self-groom regularly. This keeps them clean and smelling nice.
If anybody has first hand experience and knowledge of the smell of big cats then please contribute in a comment below. I would be interested in hearing from you.