Have you ever noticed your cat sniffing something and making a funny face? Maybe you just came home from a friend’s house (who also has a cat or dog). Your cat is entranced by your shoes. His mouth is open and he has a reflective look on his face like he is thinking about something as he sniffs. Well, he is processing information, but maybe not in the way you think.
Cats are complex and tuned into their senses. They have many more ways to process their environment than we do. He is gaining information from the scent, except he is using not only his nose, but also his Vomeronasal organs (VMO for short). These organs are linked to his olfactory bulb (the area in the brain involved in the sense of smell).
These modified scent glands are on the roof of his mouth just behind his nose. When he pauses, open mouth and reflective, he is probably passing the scented air over these glands to better get an idea of what it is. Many mammals have VMO, but there are some anatomical differences.1
A blood hound dog on a scent will process it through his nose and brain. He ducks his head toward the odor and inhales frantically to pass the scent molecules over the receptors in his nose and does not always pause at all. Horses will roll back their lips to better expose their VMO to the air.
However the animal poses to maximize the odor, the response is called Flehman response and many animals do it.
Your cat’s odd face is the feline equivalent of “getting the scent” and he is making brain pathways to help him form decisions in the future. Never underestimate the complex and fascinating miracle that is a cat.
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- Comparative anatomy of the vomeronasal cartilage in mammals: mink, cat, dog, pig, cow and horse. Ann Anat. 1995 Jul;177(5):475-81. Salazar I, Sánchez Quinteiro PS, Cifuentes JM.