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From How Far Away Can Cats Pick Up a Smell? What Science Says

Written by: Christian Adams

Last Updated on January 13, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

orange cat smelling something

From How Far Away Can Cats Pick Up a Smell? What Science Says


Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo


Dr. Paola Cuevas

MVZ (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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A cat’s sense of smell is critical to their survival, and its significance starts from the day they’re born. They are born blind and dependent on their mother. That fact underscores the importance of smell, with several factors affecting the detection distance.

Meteorological elements such as high winds and precipitation or a fan running indoors can affect the cat’s sense of smell. Let’s consider the answer to this question from the cat’s perspective; it might surprise you that cats can sense up to numbers far exceeding 4 miles! 

Continue reading to learn where these numbers come from:


How Smell Stacks Up with a Cat’s Senses

Cats are predators, which affects how they use their senses. They sleep a lot during the day to conserve energy for the night’s hunts. It’s reasonable, considering that their prey is active at this time, too. Rodents and other small animals adapt to this lifestyle to avoid predators.

Felines can see better than people in low-light conditions, which gives them an edge. Surprisingly, they are near-sighted compared to people, with a distance range of just 10% that of humans1. However, they have a wider visual field of 200 degrees compared to our 180 degrees. That means their peripheral vision is better than ours.

Cats score higher when it comes to hearing, too. Their audible range runs from 48 Hz to 85 kHz (48-85,000 HZ) compared to our 20 Hz to 20 kHz (20-20,000 Hz).  The difference allows felines to hear the sounds that prey species might make under bushes or floorboards.

Their sense of smell is far superior to ours. They have more olfactory receptors, which are specialized receptors of the respiratory system that detect aromas. The cat’s nose has 45 to 80 (possibly up to 200) million scent receptors, while the human nose contains about 5 million.

Their sense of smell is 10 to 20 times better than ours! Then, there is the number of receptors. Cats have 40 times more than humans. When you combine the two factors, you can appreciate how specialized a feline’s sense of smell is and how it can affect what they detect and from how far away.

cat nose-pixabay
Photo Credit: RyanMcGuire, Pixabay

Detection and Recognition Thresholds

There are two ways to view smell and taste since the two are so closely related. There is a concentration of molecules when you notice a scent or taste. You know something is there but don’t know what it is. That’s true if you’ve never encountered it before. Then, there is the recognition threshold. Your brain makes the connection between what it detects to identifying it.

It works the same with cats. It’s an essential factor to consider because it’s often a matter of concentration, which can directly impact how far away a feline can smell something. It’s evident when your pet detects something new. Maybe you’ve visited a friend who has a new cat or dog. Perhaps you’ve walked in the woods or opened a can of food.

Your kitty will likely notice something different as soon as you walk in the door. Your pet will probably take time to smell you and add these scents to their scent database.

The other thing to consider is the sense of smell’s connection with memory. This part of the brain is the most ancient. Cats, like humans, form associations with scents. Think about the first things that come to mind when you smell bread baking in the oven or a cup of hot coffee.

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The Other Way Cats Smell

It’s helpful to compare the cat’s sense of smell with ours to understand the distance equation. Felines have another structure to help them understand their world. The vomeronasal organs, or Jacobson’s organs, are located between the nasal septum and hard palate. Their function is to pick up pheromones and other molecules in the air.

Pheromones are vital chemical signals for courtship and reproduction. They are also the substances that cats use to mark you as their territory when they rub their cheeks against you.

cat nose -pixabay
Photo Credit: birgl, Pixabay

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How Far Away Can Cats Detect Scents

Getting a precise answer to this question is complicated. A cat won’t tell you it has detected something unless you notice that it acts differently when you smell what it has noticed before you. A trained pet might provide better help. It’s essential to understand that smell is a phasic sense in people and cats. We tune it out once we’ve identified it and dismissed any danger.

Let’s go back to the scent receptors. Domestic cats have up to 200 million of them. A scent hound, such as a Beagle, has 225 million. The data for dogs are more widely available than for cats. Researchers have found that canines can smell scents up to 12 miles (20 km) away. Based on the density of receptors, we can guess that cats have similar capabilities.

The vomeronasal organ also has specialized pheromone receptors, and it turns out that cats have an advantage compared to dogs.  Cats have around 30 vomeronasal organ receptors, while dogs have only nine. That suggests that felines have a wider range of detectable chemical substances.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that dogs and cats can find their way home if they get lost. We often hear about these heartwarming stories. We did manage to find one study that gave a definitive figure on the distance question. The researcher found that domestic cats could find their way back from a distance of 1.5–4 miles (2.4–6.4 km).

Our research concludes that cats are well-equipped to smell from far distances and at least as good, if not better, than dogs. The evidence from canines points to numbers far exceeding 4 miles.

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Final Thoughts

The distance from which cats can detect scents in their world is impressive due to their enhanced sense of smell. It’s integral to every aspect of a feline’s existence, from birth to reproduction to death. Therefore, it makes sense that they have a long detection range. It gives them an evolutionary edge on so many fronts.

Understanding the cat’s talent for detecting scents makes it easier to appreciate how cats navigate their world. Felines are closer to their evolutionary roots than most domesticated animals. That makes their sense of smell so extraordinary and critical.

See Also: 

Featured Photo Credit: MariyaL, Shutterstock

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