Why do Cats Make ‘Stinky Face’?

You’ve seen your cat stick her nose into something, whether it’s a blanket, a spot on the carpet, whatever, then look up with her mouth slightly open and her eyes slightly narrowed. It looks exactly like she’s saying, “Ewwwwww, what is that nasty smell?” There’s a reason that cats do “stinky face,” and it actually has nothing to do with whether they find a smell distasteful.

Tiger Stinky Face

What, exactly does “stinky face” mean?

Cats have a gland known as the Jacobson’s gland, or the vomeronasal organ, in their mouths that allows them to “taste” the air and better identify scents. It’s in the roof of your cat’s mouth, and she uses it to analyze the scent of other cats. This is especially useful when cats smell another cat’s urine, but you might see your cat do this with feces, and even old vomit spots, depending on how well they were cleaned.

“Stinky face” is also called the flehmen reaction, and it’s not limited to domestic cats. Big cats make this face, too. They, like our furry feline friends at home, actually make this face when they like the smell and want to identify it. This is also how intact male cats identify a female cat in heat.

This is a good explanation of “stinky face:”

Did you know “stinky face” can be helpful to you?

We’ve had problems with some of our cats urinating on our furniture, so whenever I see one of our cats making “stinky face,” I immediately go smell the spot myself to see if I can figure it out. Sometimes I regret it, and sometimes I can’t smell anything. Sometimes, I catch one of my cats making “stinky face” when they’re smelling a spot in which another cat has lain or bathed.

In fact, the “stinky face” I see on Chase and Gizmo is often how I’ve found urine spots. It can be almost as helpful as a UV light. The problems we have with our cats urinating outside the boxes is stress; we’ve had them evaluated by the vet several times for medical problems. They don’t do it nearly as much they used to, but the flehmen reaction has been very helpful in telling us when someone has gone outside the litter boxes.

If you’ve ever seen your cat make “stinky face,” it’s simply because she’s trying to analyze a scent she’s encountered, and doesn’t mean she’s encountered something unpleasant like it does with us. She’s just trying to identify what she smells.

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