If you’ve visited us here at Turpentine Creek, you might have seen one of our cats making a face similar to the above.
We call it a stinky face. Scientifically, it is referred to as the Flehmen Response. It’s a face cats make to gather more information about a particular scent. The name Flehmen comes from the German language and means to bear the upper teeth. And this response isn’t only seen in felines. Ungulates, like deer and horses, also have a Flehmen Response. It’s possible that humans once had the capabilities for it based on a vestigial organ in adult humans. When making this face, the animal actually stops breathing for a short while.
A cat’s sense of smell is so important that they have a secondary organ to gather even more information about the world around them. This organ is called the Jacobson Organ. The Jacobson Organ is located in the front of the nasal cavity, near the septum. It’s behind the front teeth, which is why the cats expose their teeth while making the face. The system isn’t fully understood, but it is known that the organ is filled with fluid and used for detecting fluid-based chemical stimuli. In many mammal species, the chemical stimuli are brought to the organ by the tongue, but this is not observed in cats.
For wild cats, the Flehmen Response is used for mating and territory establishment. Most often seen in male cats, they make this face to determine if the female cats around them are in heat and would be responsive to mating. Both male and female cats make this face in response to urine markings, but once again, males will do it nearly 3 times more often than females. This may be because male territories don’t usually overlap, while female-female and female-male territories can overlap. Male cats may be using this to decide where the boundaries are for another male cat. Also, to see if someone has been in their territory.
It’s not quite so serious out here at Turpentine. While we do see our cats having a Flehmen Response to each other, they’re often making their stinky face at perfume and spices that we put on their toys. In general, we take that as a good sign; they really enjoyed their enrichment! Sometimes, they’ll even stinky face their own urine. We don’t know what they’re expecting when they do that. When you come to visit, see if you can spot one of the cats making this face. You never know what they might be sniffing.