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How animals interpret scent

Updated on January 1, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock, and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.


The Secret Lies In The Soft Palate

When I'm sitting in my recliner watching TV, my cat Fluffy likes to jump up on the chair's right arm, stare at me until I acknowledge her, then move to a standing position on my chest.

Her sniffing tickles my cheek, then we're nose to nose, then she settles into a prone position on my chest. But not until she has made an unappealing lip-smacking noise which sounds like she's got a mouth full of mayonnaise and is trying to figure out what it is.

Jeez, I hate it when she does that.

But, what she's actually doing is using her tongue to direct the molecules of aroma she's collected to the roof of her mouth. Embedded therein is her Jacobson's organ, aka the vomeronasal organ (VNO), which identifies and interprets all those scent molecules.

What she has identified in those few seconds of lip smacking, sometimes ending in a "grimace" known as the flehmen response (which further directs scent molecules to the VNO) is a veritable buffet of smells that define my day.

She'll catch echoes of the water I showered under (and will likely recognize it as the water she laps from the tub walls), my cologne, the rabbits and kittens I handled at the store (we used to own a feed & grain store), the coffee I drank, the sandwich I had for lunch, and dozens of other smells I bring home.

Many animals can smell the individual components of an odor, where we just smell the collective odor. We walk by a pizza parlor and smell pizza. They smell yeast, tomatoes, oregano, cheese, anchovies (eew), and a host of other individual smells.

We, too, have a VNO but it's rudimentary, which is a five syllable word for useless. The human appendix fits into that category, too. However other mammals, and reptiles, have a fully functioning VNO that is an integral part of their communications system.

We have killer language skills, but their language skills are rudimentary. However their olfactory skills are all that and a bag of chips. This is clearly demonstrated, for example, in the courtship rituals of our individual species.


A male animal will approach the hindquarters of a female of his species to sniff for pheromones that signal her receptivity. Male Homo sapiens will approach the female with "that look" in his eye and the female will signal her receptivity by exclaiming, "OK but make it quick, I gotta get up and go to work in the morning."

Snakes, especially, appreciate their VNO. Being deaf and possessing poor eyesight, they rely on their forked tongue (exposes more surface, collects a lot more scent) and Jacobson's organ to locate prey and mates, avoid rivals and predators, and reconcile their environment.

Science has tried to put a number on the difference between our sense of smell and that of cats and dogs, but I don't think they've nailed it yet. You can get different opinions from various credible sources.


They say we've got about 50 million receptor cells lining our nasal passages. Dogs are blessed with a few more, depending upon their size and muzzle shape. A dachshund, for example, has around 125 million receptor cells while a bloodhound has around 300 million, give or take a few. Other breeds fall somewhere in between.

That's why a trained dog can isolate the scent of cocaine in a suitcase filled with dirty clothes and toiletries while circling the baggage carousel sniffing dozens of other bags filled with similar stuff but no coke.

Brachycephalics, or blunt muzzled dogs such as pugs, don't have as sharp a sense of smell as their long muzzled colleagues, but they still have us beat by a country mile. They're also more susceptible to respiratory problems and heat stroke.


When we owned our feed & grain store, all summer long we'd get requests for products to repel animals, and there are a bunch of them on the market. Do they work? Not usually.

If there was a sure thing, it would be on the market, everybody would use it, and nobody would have a problem with varmints.

The products on the market smell lousy to us, or at least the ingredient list would gag a maggot, but to an animal it may not be so bad.

Don't forget, nothing smells better to an animal than the hind end of the animal in front of it. So just because it smells bad to us, it doesn't mean an animal will find it repulsive.

By the way, arguably the most successful animal repellent on the market is predator urine. We sold coyote urine, but there are other essences available, such as fox urine and bobcat urine.

When you dispense it properly you're mimicking the marking pattern of an indigenous predator and animals lower on the food chain will recognize the scent as a danger signal.

It's one of those "fun products" to sell, too. Each week during the growing season we'd get calls from gardeners that go something like this:

Caller: "Yeah, hello, now, uh, this is gonna kinda sound, um, kinda weird to you, but…uh, do you carry, uh, coyote urine?"

Your humble scribe: "Yes, we do…fresh squeezed."


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    • wetnosedogs profile image


      6 years ago from Alabama

      Bob bamberg

      Sure glad my dogs don't do that to me-LOL

    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      6 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi wetnosedogs, it's hard to cheat on your dogs, isn't it? It's a good thing they don't decide to "mark" you and claim you as their territory. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

    • wetnosedogs profile image


      6 years ago from Alabama

      My dogs sure love to smell me when I get home. They really stop me at the door if I had stopped sometime during the day to pet another dog. They need to get all the whiffs in to explore this other animal smell. Then they will decide it is not really coming in the house with me and they will make a break for the back door, remembering they really need to get out in the back yard for serious business-LOL.


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