Wednesday 6 April 2011

Cat Body Odor

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.

Cat Food

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.

Skin Complaint

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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  1. My Siamese cat smells to me like a Mustelid. I have 3 other cats (calico, female and male silver tabbies). So I have something to compare to. The Siamese definitely seems to have a different body chemistry. Makes me think Siamese might be a bhybrid cross between a cat and a Mustelid (e.g. weasel, ferret, etc.)

  2. This looks like spam but I will let you get away with it this time but not again please.

  3. My Apple Head Siamese cat also smells musky. He is neutered and will be 2 years old December 7, 2014. On the other hand, I have a large white cat that always smells normal. In the past I had an applehead but do not remember him smelling like the one I have now. I cannot find anything that would indicate that this is something particular to Siamese.

    1. I have just spotted your comment. I'll look into this today. It is an interesting thought: associating body odor with cat breed. I don't think there is an association but I might be wrong.

  4. We just adopted a shelter kitten a week ago. She is active, playful, learns quickly and gets along with our other cat. We did notice a foul flatulance from her but attributed it to being a kitten and changing her enviroment. We decided to flea bath both cats. Both were not happy but neither clawed at us. While bathing the kitten we noticed a nasty smell and made sure we washed he bottom. Once we were done the smell was still there and seemed to be worse! She is a lap cat but I cannot let her near me with that smell! Any ideas? We did check for ear mites and she looks fine.

    1. What came to my mind was anal sac problems. This is a real guess obviously but you mention cleaning her bottom which may have released some anal sac oils. Read this:

      And perhaps take her to the vet. Thanks for commenting and sharing.

  5. My cat is an indoor outdoor cat but every once in a while, he comes around smelling like stale sweat. Like a gym locker room. It could be from laying in a puddle perhaps but sometimes he jumps up on the bed and it smells like a teenager is in the room! Any ideas?

    1. My only immediate thought is that he is visiting a home where the person has a certain body odour which he deposits on your cat when he strokes him. Another possibility is that he has a place somewhere where he lies on some old rubbish and which smells. This might be in a garage or a shed or something like that. There may be mice there which attracts him.

  6. one of my cats sometimes his fur smells like urine. I'm thinking I should take him to the vet ? He is indoors only

    1. Hello. Before you take him to the vet just make sure that he is clean. You might brush him. You might comb him with a flea comb. You might use a damp cloth over his fur to remove anything on it which may smell of urine. He may, indeed, have urine on his fur. Just make sure his fur is in good order and clean and combed and brushed et cetera and then check whether he has a smell or not. You should also check his mouth and teeth if you can. Sometimes cats with poor dental health have bad breath which can smell. You may be confusing that smell with the smell of urine. Just a thought.

      If he still has a smell and if he looks ill or is behaving differently to normal then consider taking him to the vet. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Hi, there. I have a cat that has been acting sickly (respiratory distress) for about a day. I picked him up for a cuddle and noticed that he smells strongly of mildew. I'm wondering if mildew could have contributed to making him so sick. I'm thinking this is a take to the vet sort of problem, but would like some feedback before doing so.

    1. I think you are spot on. He may have brushed against mildew (a fungus) and then in licking himself, ingested it. This may be causing the illness. I'd expect him to get better on his own accord but a vet check would be a good idea. Either that or watch careful to see how it develops and then take action quickly if needs be. If he is quite sick now I'd take him to the vet asap.

    2. OR...he has simply inhaled the fungal spores and this is causing the breathing difficulties.

  8. My cat ALWAYS smells amazing. She's an indoor cat and we live in a smallish apartment, and yet her scent changes a lot and very frequently. I don't understand why one day she smells like strawberries and the next she smells like freshly baked cake. I'm very curious and desperately want to know how this happens.

    1. Your comment is very interesting. Are you sure the smell changes as you describe? It may be simply be that the body odor incorporates elements of both smells and you pick up these different elements at different times. A healthy, clean cat's body odor is subtle and very nice. It is hard to pin point and a bit like describing the smell of a fine wine! Fine wine has a scent that can be "complex" meaning there are shades of different odors. Other than that suggestion it may vary with the food she eats and/or the environment in which she finds herself. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Faddle,ears her skin my 12-year old house cat has developed a foul odor. For the last 1 & half years,she has constantly licked her skin to the point she is bald in several spots. Her anal glands are swollen. Last night she slept near me which alerted me to her foul odor. She has had bloodwork done (nothing turns up) so am at a loss what to do. Thanks.

    1. Hi, you say her anal glands are swollen. This indicates an infection in the glands. Have they been checked out by a vet? If not I'd do this. Her licking causing bald spots is quite possibly due to stress. Is there anything in the home such as other cats or people etc. which might cause stress?

      If it is not stress it will be skin irritation due to such things as an allergy. Really I'd recommend a visit to the vet to discuss these issues urgently. Thanks for commenting.

  10. Looking for any advice...
    Weve taken our cat to the vet several times and they can not figure out why his fur smells so bad.

    It is a very strong musky fecal like smell that can be smelled from as little as 3 feet away. Petting him will pass the smell to your hand.

    No medical conditions have been found as of yet although I dont think our vet is going out of their way to diagnose. They just say hes bigger and may have a hard time cleaning himself.

    Ive watched him, he cleans himself just fine. Have you ever given a cat a bath? Because I give him monthly baths and let me tell ya... When hes wet, the smell becomes 10 times as strong.

    He is 7 years old and this started when he was 5. He developed a large mat in his fur on his lower back and it could not be groomed out. Our vet ended up putting him under and then shaving him.

    We have done this again aa once his fur gets too long, he gains a mat in that spot. I now regularly trim his back with kitty clippers (he actually likes this) and it has kept the mat away.

    Short fur or not... I cant get rid of the smell, even a bath lathered in soap (im careful not tobget his ears wet) does nothing to eliminate the smell.

    Weve put ear drops in his ears. Ive wiped his head with kitty wipes.
    Nothing helps.

    The only thing Ive read hear is the bad breath issue although this smell is way too strong to be from him passing his bad breath I would think.

    I feel like this is some sort of skin disease. It seems its all over him and it cant be washed out

    Id appreciate any help at all this has been straining our relationship with our cat and id like to be able to pet him without having to wash hands after.
    Thank you!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'll do some research on this before replying at length. Sorry to hear about your cats problem. I'll reply fully in 12 hours.

    2. Awesome thank you very much

    3. Hi, as you say that petting him passes the smell to your hand this indicates that the odor is anywhere on his body, most likely the flanks and back etc.. This must eliminate lots of possibilities for the cause.

      Has your vet eliminated feline seborrhea. This can take an oily form that has an unpleasant odor. The coat may feel greasy. The skin along the back is rich in sebaceous glands which may account for the matting on the lower back.

      Seborrhea can be a primary condition or caused by another illness of some sort. Can you respond by telling me if your vet has ticked off this possibility?

    4. I think you are really onto something. I didnt mention that his backs fur becomes greasy.

      I dont know if the vet has checked this off butbIm guessing not since they offered no specifics.

      I think we are going to take him to a new vet and specifically ask about this.

      Can you tell me....
      Is feline seborrhea capable of producing the smell of the strength that I described?
      And any idea what treatments are available? Is it curable or something to maintain?

      Thank you very much again. This makes a ton of sense

    5. I an not sure how strong the odor is but it is described as "unpleasant" and the treatments are omega-3 fatty acid supplements and antiseborrheic shampoos provided it is a primary condition and not caused by an underlying skin condition. I hope this helps. If you can provide some feedback it would nice because I can then do further research if needed.

    6. Will do, thanks again.
      Were setting up a new vet appt to see if they can diagnose this and a cause.
      Ill keep you up to date on how the treatmemts work out.

  11. Hi My cat is 8 years old,, I have noticed in the last few days her scent has changed and it is whith her fur, not a bad scent just different, reminds me of a wet cat smell but mild. She regularly cleans herself and is in very good condition. I have noticed that her behaviour has changed when my older cat passed away a couple of months ago, but not in a withdrawn way she became very playful and talkative. She now has a teddy bear that she plays with and talks to it which she has never done before.I do have another cat so she is not alone, but do you think this is a stress issue?

  12. My 19 year old cat has recently developed the smell of urine but only on the top of her head and neck. Its not always there but has been on and off for over a week. She seems fine and isn't doing anything differently. She's eating well and using her litter tray normally by what I can see. Is there a gland or something that could be causing this?

  13. I'm hoping you can help me. I have six indoor only cats. Our youngest one is just over a year old. He's neutered, very active and has no health issues that we are aware of. However, recently I have noticed he has a very pungent's not bad breath because his breath actually has a different smell. I can't figure out what it is but the smell hits like a punch in the face and like now (several hours after morning cuddle time), my nostrils are still burning with the smell. I'm super sensitive to smells to begin with and my husband says he doesn't smell anything. So, is this something I should be concerned about that may be a symptom of a health issue? Oh and none of our other cats exhibit this smell, so it is just him.


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