8 Interesting Facts About the Cat Nose and the Cat Sense of Smell

Did you know cats have "nose prints," and no two nose prints are the same?

A closeup photo of a cat's pink nose.
A closeup photo of a cat's pink nose. Photography by _Runis_/Thinkstock.

There’s a lot more to a cat nose and a cat sense of smell than you might think. Yes, the cat nose is a cute little spot to “boop,” but that colorful little nugget plays a huge role in your kitty’s life. Here’s how.

1. A cat nose is your cat’s most important sense organ

A closeup of a pink cat nose.
A closeup of a pink cat nose. Photography ©MegaV0lt | Thinkstock.

Cats have 200 million scent receptors in their nasal cavity. Most breeds of dogs don’t have even close to that number. Your cat’s sense of smell guides her to prey, tells her if food is edible or toxic, tells her where you’ve been, and even helps her find her home if she gets lost.

2. Your cat’s nose tells her about other cats in the area

Outdoor cats mark their territory with urine or feces, so if your cat goes outdoors, she can tell if anyone’s been intruding in her space. The cat sense of smell to can detect female cats in heat; cats who are ready to mate release certain pheromones detectable only to the feline nose.

3. The cat sense of smell stimulates her appetite

Cats have very few taste receptors on their tongues compared to people, so it’s the smell rather than the flavor that stimulates her sense of hunger. That’s a big part of the reason why cats with respiratory infections or other nasal blockages stop eating: If they can’t smell their food, they won’t get hungry.

4. Mutual sniffing is a feline greeting

If you’ve watched two feline friends approach each other, sniff one another’s noses, sides and butts, and then go on about their business together, you’ve watched the feline equivalent of, “Hey, how’s it going? Whatcha been up to?”

5. There are smells cats really don’t like

Because cats’ noses are so sensitive, very strong odors are distasteful if not outright painful. This is one reason I recommend against using scented cat litter: The smell might be nice to you, but it could be overwhelming for your feline friend’s nose. Cats are also known to dislike the smell of citrus and tea tree (melaleuca) oil.

6. The color of a cat’s nose is directly related to the color of her fur

Black cats have black noses, white cats have pink noses, orange cats have orange noses, gray cats have gray noses and so on. And if your cat is multicolored, she might just have a multicolored nose, too. Some kitties also have nose freckles, and some cats have noticeable nose color changes.

7. Cats have “nose prints,” and no two cats’ nose prints are the same

Every cat’s nose has a unique pattern of bumps and ridges, just like humans’ fingerprints. There has apparently been some talk about using nose prints as a form of identification, but good luck with getting your cat to tolerate having her nose inked and pressed against a piece of paper!

8. Why do cats lick their noses? No one’s sure about that one

Some say it’s like a reset button for the cat sense of smell: licking the nose removes any residue such as pollen that may linger and interfere with the cat’s need to smell other things. Others say it’s a “tell” that a cat is anxious or nervous and has no connection with the sense of smell at all.

Tell us: Do you have any weird questions about the cat nose or the cat sense of smell?

Thumbnail: Photography © _Runis_ | Thinkstock.

Read more about the cat nose and cat sense of smell on Catster.com:

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal rescue volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.

31 thoughts on “8 Interesting Facts About the Cat Nose and the Cat Sense of Smell”

  1. I have a Russian Blue (looks like /not officially). He has a smoky gray coat, 12+ pounds, tall and on the slender side. He is a hunter, playful – even at age 4, and has the most amazing sense of smell I’ve ever seen in a cat. (I’ve had cats most of life and I’m over 50 years old). I’ve had times with some sort of food or snack in different rooms or had just gone grocery shopping – food still wrapped up and within minutes – he’s found at the food source sniffing or eating away. He’s fed twice daily.

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  9. About cats licking their noses. What I heard from a number of vets is:
    1. Nose-licking can take place just after a spike in anxiety, when there is no (more) immediate danger, but the situation needs watching. Horses do the same, licking and smacking their lips when they relax after an alarm, but are not yet sure all is well. 2. Nausea: not only immediately before throwing up, but also in case of some chronic or developing conditions (kidney failure, intestinal lymphoma…)
    I’d like to add the possibility that in both these cases, and also perhaps while hunting, a cat may lich nose in order to raise humidity of the mucosa and so favour a better perception of faint smells (or attempt elimination of the bad taste from toxins in case of illness): they say scent dogs work better in humid (not wet) weather.

  10. Is there a way to be able to tell if my cat actually cannot smell? Our last cat would be all over us in a hot minute when we’d have milk, ice cream, cheese. but I spilled a bunch of milk on the floor a few weeks ago and our new cat just walked on by like there was nothing there.

    1. My cat seems to have no sense of smell at all. I have offered him milk, cheese. chicken, ham, turkey, beef, and scrambled eggs — turns his nose up at them every time. Once in a rare while, when he seems interested in the chicken fresh out of the oven, I tear off a piece to see if he will eat it. If he takes a taste, I randomly toss another morsel on the floor or in his food bowl. He can’t find it to save his life. I’ve never seem even one of my dogs so scent blind. They can pick up the slightest whiff of a drumstick more than a country mile away. Yet Romo is the finest indoor/outdoor cat I’ve ever known. He refuses to use a litter box. It’s beneath his dignity. He’d rather wake me up at 3 or 4 in the morning than to take care of his business inside any corner of the house. He protects his outside borders fearlessly but is not aggressive when he roams to places God only knows where. One of the finest felines I’ve ever had the honor and pleasure of bonding with.

      1. How does he survive if he doesn’t eat any of that stuff? He must eat some sort of cat food, what kind – how about mice, etc… My old cat has congestion issues and hard to get to eat.

        1. My cat is the same. Won’t eat anything but dry cat food in her bowl. The vet said I was feeding her too much, and got a feeder to dispense food, but she can’t find the kibble when it comes out.

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  12. This happens everytime. I am in the kitchen at the front of the house and our calico is in the back bedroom. As soon as I open a can of tuna, within a minute she is wandering into the kitchen talking wanting a little taste. Is the odor of the tuna really traveling that fast to the back of the house for her to smell it?

  13. Both my cats love the smell of coffee. Spazzes out rolling around on the Tim hortons lid. 1 of them tells on smokers and will eat cigarettes if left out. He will lick the persons smoking hand and fingers. Will climb inside their coat sleeve. Steel cigarettes out of the pack to eat them. Yuck

    1. Hi Tammi,

      Please be mindful of what your cats are eating as some things can make them sick. Check out these articles for more insight:

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  15. we have first hand experience about the strength of our cats sense of smell
    I’m prone to sinus infections & our 10mth old ginger tabby will nip the bridge of my nose when I’m getting a sinus infection days before I experience symptoms & has been correct the last 5 times Ive had sinus issues
    Our 6yo ragdoll birman cross girl Crystal also knows when we are coming down sick days before we show any symptoms & follows us around keeping an eye on us more than usual
    She is also a therapy cat for my 17yo son who experiences severe anxiety disorder & high functioning autism crystal knows when his adrenalin levels rise from anxiety & is there to comfort him & calm him down since we got her as a kitten she has helped him to alleviate the severe panic attacks he used to have & he hasn’t had to have medication as she is so in tune with all of us that she helps us BEFORE symptoms get too bad
    our Bengal cross boy also knows when its that time of the month for the girls & gets overly protective of us & in the past our furry family members knew before I did when I was pregnant with each of my 5 children & went into major protection mode
    thanks to our furry felines we will know when we need to see a doctor for any serious health issues as their behaviour will let us know
    so thankful for our fluffy four legged guardian angels

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  17. Don’t give your cats Temptation treats so many cats have not reacted to well to this brand treat including mine. One cat owner had there cats blood tested and it had super high Calcium levels.
    If you search this brand it is scary how many others there are.
    I am glad i do not have to clean up throw up everyday.I sadly thought that was normal.

  18. We have a persian kitten who has been a picky eater. After much observation, I’ve determined that he won’t eat strong smelling foods. Therefore dry foods are preferred to wet foods. For urinary health, we don’t want him on a totally dry diet. I am having a hard time finding canned food that doesn’t smell and would appreciate any suggestions.

    1. my persians are picky one eats the sheba pate the other hills urinary cd stew

      the food does smell but they usually do eat well

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  21. The bit about taste receptors is pretty much a red herring.

    When humans (or any other animals) eat, most of the flavour comes from the smell. Aromas from the food you’re chewing reach the scent receptors via internal passages.

    Taste only handles sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (except cats don’t have working sweet receptors). Ask anyone who has had their scent receptors/nerves stop working (anosmia) and they’ll tell you that food has lost almost all of its flavour. They can tell if a food is sweet or salty but that’s it.

    Lose your sense of taste and food will still be interesting. Lose your sense of smell and it becomes almost flavourless.

    1. I have to disagree about one thing. I’m so sorry to do this too! Cats do actually have a working sense of sweet taste. Two of my cats absolutely love powdered sugar.
      I myself have a question though. Are some beeeds more delicate in the olfactory realm than others? I have three tuxedos, one calico and the youngest who is the most sensitive is a Siamese calico cross. Her Siamese markings all are calico colored. She’s completely darling to behold! She won’t even use the litter box because the litter is too strong for her little nose and when it comes to catnip all she has to do is smell it and she get WILD lol.

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