What Makes Your Cat’s Nose So Special?

Have you ever noticed how much cats use their noses? They sniff a lot! Just how important is a cat's nose? You're about to find out!

Mar 17, 2023byAbigail Gould

Have you ever been in a situation where you’re minding your own business, chatting to your cat and your partner interrupts because they think you’re talking to them?

Fortunately, cats interact a little differently. The way they approach everything in life is very much unlike their human parents. Especially since basic communication involves a lot more smelling and a lot less yelling.

Cats’ noses are very interesting and finding out about them is definitely worthwhile!

How Cats Use Their Sense of Smell

closeup of sleeping cats nose

By sniffing things out, cats can recognize other living creatures that share their territory. That includes you and your fellow pets. They also use smell to identify everyday objects such as cozy pillows, your slippers, vases on shelves, and empty boxes. Their noses pick up details about where you go during the day as well as the other people and animals you’ve interacted with.

Cats’ sense of smell also allows them to track their prey and find food. It keeps them within the bounds of their territory, helps them determine whether any rival cats have been intruding, and guides them home after a jaunt around the neighborhood.

cat finding food

Did you know that cats can even taste certain smells? Scenting is so important to cats that the nose isn’t their only odor-sensing organ. They have an additional sensing mechanism called the vomeronasal organ where pheromone fragrances are gathered and interpreted through the mouth. Something that we humans can’t do.

When it comes to navigating their environment, cats rely on smell the most. It’s the strongest of all their senses, and they need it to interpret the world around them.

Fun Fact: Humans have 5 million olfactory scent receptors while cats have a phenomenal 200 million! However, cats only have 473 taste buds while we have all of 9 000!

Each Cat Nose Is Different

tabby cat nose closeup

According to biologists, the real name for a cat’s nose is a “rhinarium”. Cats’ rhinaria are colored according to their body markings. So, a seal-point Siamese will have a dark nose, and a Lilac-point will have a lighter one.

Interestingly, cats have subtle patterns beyond the color markings that make their noses unique. These include lines, swirls, and tiny little bumps. In fact, no two cat noses are alike.

While each cat may wear their personal signatures on their rhinarium, all kittens are born blind and deaf. What they share is their fully developed sense of smell. This helps them identify their mother, where to suckle, and each other.

Interacting and Communicating

ginger kitten looking upwards

Have you ever seen two cats greeting each other? There is a cute ritual that is very important in kitty communication. First, they touch noses and sometimes do a friendly head-bump.

This mutual nose-sniffing is interesting. You see, surrounding the nose, mouth, and chin areas are a high concentration of scent glands. That means, when cats rub faces, they are trading scent markers.

The same goes for when your cat rubs her face against yours. She transfers her pheromone scent markers onto your skin and collects a little of yours onto her own. And, you guessed it, your cat also makes sure you smell like her territory!

Expressing Affection

tiny ginger kitten on white blanket

Cats learn social behavior from their mothers when they are tiny kittens. Not only does scenting each other keep them safe and fed, but it also results in warmth and comfort from their mothers. And, later, from their humans too.

After all, when Snuggles rubs her head against you, chances are you both enjoy it. Thus, affectionate communication is reinforced, and the expression of love is mutual (even if only one of you can smell the pheromones).

Cats collect more information through their sense of smell than we can imagine. Research suggests that they even notice changes in your hormones. So, if you are pregnant, your cat has already detected the new situation! Your body has communicated it to them through chemical messages. You might not “nose” it, but your cat does!

Indicators of Health

cat nose and whiskers

A checkup at the vet will usually include an examination of your cat’s nose. A good, healthy cat nose should be a little cool and a little damp. It should also vary in degrees of wetness and dryness throughout the day. There should be no visible discharge and air should exhale equally from both nostrils during breathing.

Changes to these nose qualities could indicate respiratory infections or a variety of other ailments, sometimes serious ones. For example, a pale nose may indicate anemia and yellow coloration may be a sign of jaundice.

At the end of the day, you should know what your cat’s nose looks like when he is healthy so that you can recognize underlying issues early on. It’s not a good sign when your cat starts licking his nose a lot more than usual, if he has stopped cleaning his face, or if he is breathing through his mouth.

Smell You Later

closeup of cat with blue eyes

For cats, smell is their dominant sense. They need it to understand their world. And it’s easy to see why they would use their noses to interact with their human and animal family members.

Cats’ noses are adorable, and they are super important! Without a nose, a cat can’t, well… cat. So next time you’re admiring your cat, take a moment to appreciate that refined little sniffer!

If you want to learn more facts about your cat’s anatomy, check out the other articles in this series.

Abigail Gould
byAbigail Gould

Abigail’s experience with animals comes from growing up on a farm. She has been fortunate enough to look after cats, dogs, ducks, geese, chickens, and guinea pigs. Of all the pets she’s cared for, guinea pigs have been the most entertaining, dogs the most rewarding, and cats the most essential!