A cat’s sense of smell or olfaction is critical to its survival. Its significance starts from the day it is born as the kitten struggles to find an open teat on its mother to get nourishment. Remember that they are born blind and totally dependent on their parents. That fact underscores the importance of smell, with several factors affecting the detection distance.
It depends on the environment, whether the animal is inside or outside. It’s not just the portfolio of scents but the other factors that can affect how far–and how soon–a cat smells something. Think of breezes, precipitation, and a fan running indoors. Let’s consider the answer to this question from the cat’s perspective.
How Smell Stacks Up with a Cat’s Senses
Cats are predators, which affects how they use their senses. These animals sleep a lot during the day to conserve their 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. It works–sometimes.
Felines can see better than people in low-light conditions. That gives them an edge. Surprisingly, they are near-sighted compared to people, with a distant range of just 10% that of humans. 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 some type of cover or floorboards. That makes them more successful hunters.
Their sense of smell is far superior to ours. They seriously outnumber our 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. This means that their sense of smelling is at least between 10-20 times better than ours! The takeaway message is that cats blow us out of the water when it comes to olfaction.
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 it detects, and from how far away. The takeaway message is that cats blow us out of the water when it comes to olfaction.
Detection and Recognition Thresholds
There are two ways to view smell and taste since the two are so closely related. There is the concentration of molecules when you notice a scent or taste. You know something is there, but you 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 taken a walk 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 some time to sniff you and add these scents to its 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.
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 body structure to help them understand their world. The vomeronasal organs or Jacobson’s organs are located between their 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. Consider yourself owned.
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 both people and cats. That means we tune it out once we’ve identified it and dismissed any danger from it.
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 cats. Researchers have found that canines can smell some scents up to 12 miles (20 km) away. Based on the density of receptors, we can guess that cats have similar capabilities. But, wait! There’s more! The vomeronasal organ also has specialized pheromone receptors, and it turns out that here cats do have an advantage here when 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 see 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).
Putting everything together, 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.
The distance from which cats can detect scents in their world is a direct function of its significance in their lives. 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 whys and hows behind this question 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.
Featured Image Credit: MariyaL, Shutterstock