We cat owners have all seen it...you’re laying on the couch, minding your own business, when the cat jumps up and takes a big whiff of your feet. Your cat then opens its mouth and grimaces as if your feet are the worst smell it has ever encountered. Really makes you feel self conscious, doesn’t it?
|A cat exhibiting the flehmen response.|
Photo credit: fabcats.org
When this happens, you are seeing your cat’s Jacobson’s Organ (or vomeronasal organ, if you want to get fancy) in action. This organ is located on the roof of the mouth right behind the front teeth, and is connected to the nasal cavity. Many types of animals actually have this organ, even insects and reptiles. There are several theories about the use of the Jacobson’s Organ, but the most common theory is that the organ helps to sense pheromones and chemical compounds. Your cat accesses this organ through the “flehmen response”; this is where the cat opens its mouth and literally inhales the scent.
Cats generally utilize their Jacobson’s Organ when they encounter a scent that is unusual to them (like your sweaty feet.) Basically, your cat is trying to figure out what this scent means. Is it related to reproduction? Is it a scent marking? Is it food? The Jacobson’s Organ is not quite smelling, but it’s not quite tasting either. It’s a different sense altogether (one that science suggests humans lack.)
The Jacobson’s Organ is just another amazing way our cats become familiar with their surroundings, locate suitable sexual partners, and avoid danger.