|Cats are naturally clean - Photo by ex.libris (Flickr)|
Cat body odor is quite rarely talked about in my experience so I talk about it here. Most commonly people discuss the odor of cat urine because of inappropriate elimination. I am not, incidentally, writing about the general smell of cats in a cattery but the smell of individual cats. There is little about a cat's body odor in a general sense in the well known and respected: Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook, Fully Revised and Updated.
I was prompted to write about cat body odor after reading an excellent article by Elisa Black-Taylor on cat sniffing! Yes, do you sniff your cat? If you feel frightened to bury your head into your cat's fur I would suggest that you are the wrong person to keep a cat and/or your relationship with your cat is not good enough.
The Standard Smell
I love to kiss my cats and when you do that you can smell them. My cats are both regular well cared for domestic cats. Their cat body odor could be described as very pleasant. Elisa calls it a nutty smell. I call it "clean-nutty" or "sweet-nutty".
I think, therefore, that we can describe the standard body odor of a standard well cared for domestic cat: clean-nutty. The smell of the cat tells us quite a lot about the lifestyle of the cat. It can also provided us with information about the cat's life history, believe it or not.
This is where cat sniffing becomes very interesting. Elisa is a seasoned cat sniffer and her comments are fascinating.
She says that some of the variations in a cat's odor comes from the food the cat eats. Urban feral cats eat waste human food. Countryside feral cats eat wild animals. This can translate into a cat body odor in the same way that if person eats spicy food you can smell it on the skin of the person. That is the theory in any case.
I find that stray cats who genuinely live outside do smell different. Despite the fact that they clean themselves as regularly as a domestic cat they invariably become dirtier and this results in a mangy type smell. Outdoor cats are more likely to become ill, be unable to groom themselves and become dirty. Some illnesses have an impact on cat body odor too, which is a diagnostic aid to a veterinarian.
Bad breath will cause the air around a cat to smell but obviously this is not to be confused with body odor. This is a fairly common cause of foul smelling cats. Bad breath can be caused by mouth disease or kidney failure (uremic breath).
And neither is the smell of the substance emitted by the anal sacs that is musky smelling. The smell of anal sacs can be an indication of an infected anal sac or abscess. See also: Diet Pills For Cats?
A cat having difficulty in grooming him or herself may acquire feces and urine on the long fur around the rear end. This will obviously cause bad body odor. The cause is most likely obesity and/or arthritis and old age. Poor grooming may result in a matted, dirty coat, which will naturally smell dirty rather than the clean-nutty smell described.
Two other illnesses that have a negative impact on cat body odor are, ear mites and ear infections and autoimmune diseases that attack the cat's skin. Skin disease, such as a bacterial skin infection, can also change the odor. (See Natural Cure For Cat Ear Infections). Seborrhea is a skin condition that can cause an oily scaly skin and which has "an unpleasant odor..."1. Stud tail is similar to acne being caused by an over secretion of the sebaceous glands. The hair at the base of the tail at the top becomes matter and greasy and smells rancid1.
A visitor commented about a musky unpleasant smell coming off his cat's coat (as the smell was transferred to the person's hand when petting). Please see the comment below. I suggested feline seborrhea. This can be a secondary or primary complaint. The treatment is an antiseborrheic shampoo and omega-3 fatty acid supplements. This cause of cat odor is just another option to be checked out by a vet.
It appears that people sometimes lie about the reasons for abandoning their cats to shelters. Elisa fosters shelter cats and she can tell if the former owner is lying by sniffing the cat! For example a person might bring in a cat that they say was a stray that they just picked up. The cat might smell of a stray cat or the cat might smell sweet-nutty or of cigarettes as Elisa said.
In conclusion, cat body odor informs us about a cat's life in much the same way that, for example, a man's hands might inform us about a man's working life - labourer or desk worker.
The smell is dictated by the cat's cleanliness, diet, illness and in some cases sex/neutering (Intact, unneutered, tom cats can have a smell that is described as "pungent") . Cats have a finely tuned and sensitive sense of smell. They recognise us by our smell. They recognise each other by their smell. I can give a good example of how important body odor is to cats. I used to keep a brother and sister. They knew each other intimately. The sister fell into some paint. I had to bathe her all over. This temporarily took away her body odor. Her brother hissed at her as if she was a stranger!
1. Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook page 156.
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