Who Has a Stronger Sense of Smell, Cats or Dogs?

Who Has a Stronger Sense of Smell, Cats or Dogs?

Both dogs and cats seem to enjoy sniffing hind ends more than any other scent, but do canines or felines get a stronger whiff? Debates about this very topic have raged for years, and the time has come to let science put the issue to rest. Here’s the who and why of the sniff champions.

And the Winner is . . .

For those of you who like to read the last page of a book first, or skim through an entire article to find one pertinent fact, we’ll save you the trouble. Evidence shows that dogs are the clear winner, edging out cats’ 80 million smell receptors with a superior 300 million. Humans stumble across the finish line with only 5 million, to give you an idea of how very much better animals are at detecting scents.

Size Does Matter

In all fairness to those who favor felines, dogs across the board do have bigger noses, which provide more surface area for receptors to smell with. Even the smallest and probably one of the most familiar breeds of dog, the Chihuahua, has a larger snout than the largest cat breed, the Savannah F-1 (which sounds more like a fighter jet than a kitty). This oddly named feline category is a domestic cat that is half wild, resulting from crossbreeding between a Siamese cat and an African Serval cat – think small leopard with a cat’s face. Small face equals small nose.

Similar, Yet Different

Ever notice how your cat sometimes holds her mouth open and head up, appears to stop breathing for a second, and gets a spaced-out look on her face after smelling something particularly interesting to her? That’s called the Flehmen response, which serves to transport air containing pheromones for deeper smelling and chemical cues for further analysis into the depths of kitty’s nose. For example, after sniffing urine, she may determine that a male cat is nearby whom she wishes to avoid, or she may intensely enjoy the smell of your other cat’s butt. Dogs have a similar response called tonguing, where he pushes his tongue in rapid sequence against the roof of his mouth, sometimes chattering his teeth and foaming just a little at the mouth. The purpose is similar to that of cats, but the procedure is different (and cuter) in felines.

Evolutionary Reasons for the Stronger Smell Sense

Upon further examination, and applying a human course of thinking to the issue, dogs and cats are as different in some ways as are men and women, or Mars and Venus. Evolutionarily speaking, dogs in the wild used their exceptional sense of smell to avoid predators and find prey to eat – “he mad hunter.” Cats, however, communicate with their sense of smell by using their scent receptors to secure their territory and relationships. More finely honed communication and relationship skills are typically attributed to the human female gender and in the animal world, to cats.

Capitalizing on Their Assets

Dogs have been put to work in the capacities of finding bombs, detecting drugs, and even identifying early cancer through chemical changes in a person’s breath or on their skin. While cats don’t necessarily have jobs using their noses, they have been known who is next to die in nursing homes and hospitals. Ever wonder why they rub their bodies on people and objects? It's to leave their scent as a mark of “ownership.” Their parents and the household furniture now smell like them, possessing a tangible identifier of belonging. Because of this, kitty owners who have visited other felines and canines should not leave their clothes on the floor or else their cat may use them in place of her litter box to reclaim her territory.

Speaking Without Words

Both cats and dogs are better able to smell than we are and have very valid reasons for preferring certain scents to others. When Fluffy and Fido turn up their noses at their food, it may be rancid and need replacing. Our pets communicate to us and express themselves in ways other than words; we just have to be aware to get what they are saying.

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 Image: Stefano Mortellaro / via Flickr