Cats have been trying to keep an air of mystery about them for centuries, but cat parents have been uncovering little by little what’s under their enigmatic façade.
The truth is that despite first impressions cats are expressive creatures. If we look closely, we’ll realize that they’re constantly showing us how they feel and what they want.
It can be difficult to decipher the meaning behind some of their behaviors, but understanding our feline companions is essential. While they might play it cool most of the time, sometimes your cat lets loose and does something a little strange…like sniffing your face.
So why does your cat sniff your face and what does it mean? Cats have a strong sense of smell, offering information about their environment, like food and prey. When your cat sniffs your face, it could be a greeting gesture. By smelling your scent, especially your breath, cats also build familiarity and trust with you. There’s also a good chance that it just smells interesting, too!
Let’s dig a little deeper into what might motivate our feline friends to sniff our faces!
Feline Sense Of Smell
Before we dive into the possible reasons it’s important to understand how cats use their sniffing abilities. Dogs might be renowned for their keen sense of smell, but they’re not the only ones who’ve shown talent in the nose department.
While a cat’s sense of smell might not be as advanced as a dog’s, they’re definitely more capable than us, fourteen times better to be exact. According to studies, “humans have 5 million olfactory receptors that detect aromas, while the feline nose has 45 to 80 million!”
Vision, hearing, touch, and taste are all very important senses that help most of us navigate the world around us, and in the feline world, the smell seems to be of number one importance. But what is the purpose of this amazing olfactory system?
All our senses combined, play a crucial role in our survival, and cats are no different. By relying on their physical attributes, they manage to obtain food, avoid predators as much as they can, and communicate with other cats.
Often times cats are misunderstood and because of their lack of canine enthusiasm, they’ve been characterized as indifferent. The truth is that cats simply use different tools and have unique ways of expressing their moods and needs to animals and humans alike.
Their body language is the number one thing we humans have to understand in order to communicate properly with our feline companions. By studying their body language and in some cases their meows, we can tell if they’re feeling content, angry, or stressed. But cats don’t only use body cues to be understood and in return understand their environment. In fact, scent is a valuable communication tool for wild and domestic cats alike.
Cats have scent glands that release pheromones, and these chemicals provide information. According to studies, “many aspects of a cat’s social behavior are influenced by chemical signals.” More importantly, it seems that “chemical cues appear to play a role in stress and anxiety reduction allowing cats to feel secure in their environment.”
Their paws pads, cheeks, lips, forehead, flanks tail have scent glands, as well as two little anal glands on each side of their rectum. Thanks to their scent glands, their saliva, the smell from their urine, and the liquid that marks their stool as it passes through the anal glands, important information is revealed to cats about one another without actual confrontation. The fewer interactions between stranger cats the fewer chances of fighting and subsequentially more chances of survival.
Scent helps cats to mark their territory, identify stranger cats or members of the same colony. But they can also create familiarity and can help cats bond with one another. Cats also use their scent and ours to create a familial bond with us like when they rub their heads against us, or when they knead.
At this point, you probably get the picture: scent is an incredibly important part of how your cat sees and interacts with the world!
Why Does My Cat Sniff My Face?
It’s not unusual that cat owners have to ask unusual questions and, “why does my cat sniff my face?” might be at the top of the list. One thing is certain, this behavior is rooted in their attempt for communication and we’re lucky enough to be on the receiving end.
But what are they trying to tell us, or what are they trying to learn about us? Or are they just doing it because our breath smells weird? Do we have to brush our teeth or try to sniff back?
What’s going on here? Let’s break it down into 6 possible explanations.
1. To Say Hello
Whether you find yourself awakened by the touch of your cat’s cold nose, or the sound of them sniffling your face don’t be alarmed. Just like most people use a handshake or a cheek to cheek kiss to greet each other, so do cats, but in their own way. I’ve noticed that my cats might sniff my face as soon as I’m awake in the morning, and then go on with their day.
As mentioned before, cats have glands on their face so when they greet another familiar cat in the wild, they sniff each other’s faces and butts. In most cases, cats that are friendly with each other will finish their greeting with some face rubs and allogrooming. So, by smelling us, licking us, and rubbing against us our kitties recognize our scent and it’s basically their way of greeting us.
2. To Wake You Up
Whether it’s early in the morning or in the middle of the night, there are cats that will do anything to wake up their owner. It can be a cry for help when their food bowl is empty or an invitation for some play.
Some feline companions will meow in another room, or in the same room and perhaps even in our faces. But there are also the silent ones and these cats are more cunning. Instead of provoking a frustrated groan out of our sleepy mouths, they’ll use their most lethal weapon called “being cute.”
In other words, there are cats that will smell our faces, in a subtle attempt to wake us up and get what they want. In my case, it’s usually petting and cuddling they’re after since their automatic wet food feeder is always full of fresh and delicious food!
3. Because You Share A Bond
Smell is essential to cats and it’s their number one way of recognizing if a cat is part of their tribe or not. Their nose can sense a predator nearby, a prey, or spoilt food. Mothers will also use their sense of smell to recognize their own kittens.
Each time our furballs smell us they’re building familiarity and as a result, their trust in us grows as well. Most cats will sniff their owner and then rub their faces against them to mark them with their scent and receive their owner’s smell in return.
This exchange of scents is important and it’s something we should be happy about since it’s a clear declaration of love!
4. To Get A Whiff Of Your Scent
It might come as a surprise, but cats recognize us mostly by our scent and not by our looks. A cat’s sniffing technique can be more subtle than a dog’s, so you’ve probably missed a lot more moments when your cat was taking in your scent.
Changes in the way you smell might trigger your cats need to get a better whiff of you to make sure you’re you. Changing your shower gel, or even your diet will affect the way you smell, and your kitty will need the reassurance that you’re still you. While you might not notice such a subtle change our kitties definitely will.
It’s important to remember that unlike most domestic cats we’re allowed to go outside and when we return home to our furbabies we also bring new and unfamiliar smells with us. Naturally, our cats will want to explore this bouquet of new aromas.
5. To Make Sure You’re Ok
Scent alterations can cause our kitties to pay more attention to us, which in a sense shows that they care about our wellbeing. Cats can’t actually see very well close up, so a sniff can be a great way to get a feel for what’s in front of them even if it happens to be your face.
There are also those who also believe that cats can detect illness. It seems that cats are capable of smelling a chemical change that might be happening to our bodies because of some disease. It’s possible your cat may have noticed a change in your mood and wants to make sure you’re okay or they’re simply checking in with you. Kinda like a feline “how are you?”
6. To Reduce Their Stress
Most cats create familial bonds with their owners and see them as a source of love and protection. According to research, “olfactory cues allow the kitten to orient themselves within their environment and that the olfactory stimuli may exert a calming effect, thereby reducing distress by signaling the kitten is in a familiar location.”
Since our scent is familiar to our kitties our presence would be creating a safe environment for them. In fact, a study published in the journal called Behavioural Processes has shown that when cats had to choose between food, toys, and social interaction with humans, most of the cats chose the latter. So, it only makes sense that when cats want to feel safe and loved they choose our company and our smell that comes along.
Why Do Cats Sniff Your Mouth?
For some cats, a whiff of their owner’s face isn’t enough and that’s when they go for the mouth. While this behavior might seem even stranger, I don’t think it is. Our mouths are warm, and the smell can change throughout the day.
Some cats could also be simply curious to find out what curry or spicy chilly coming from our mouth smells like. They might even enjoy our cool minty breath thanks to the chewing gum or mouth wash. If you’ve been away from home for long hours or even on vacation your kitty might simply have the need to reconnect with you through your smell and what’s more intimate than our mouth, right?
There are those who also believe that by smelling our breath cats can recognize that we’re sick with a cold. This gesture could be their way of making sure we’re healthy. But if you had a tuna sandwich at work, then I’d bet your cat’s nose is in your mouth precisely because of the tuna!
Why Do Cats Smell Your Nose And Eyes?
Cats are social creatures and social interactions are very important to keep them happy and stress-free. These interactions can take on different forms. Smelling our face and particular features, even peculiar ones like our nose and eyes can be part of their socializing.
When petting a cat, you might notice that they will first smell our hand and then they’ll let us pet them or they rub against it. They smell our hands to recognize our scent and reassure themselves that nothing bad will come of it. For the same reason, our fluffballs might smell different parts of our faces to make sure it’s us, so they can proceed to headbutt us.
Since we breathe out of our nose, they might be drawn to the warm air. Our nose is also the first thing that sticks out compared to the rest of our face so it’s only natural that it’s what they’ll investigate first. Some cats might even go for a sort of nose nibble which is also a sign of affection in cat language.
Eyes might be the strangest thing a cat could smell on our face, but then again, the moisture in our eyes could also make them curious. If you were crying or your eyes teared up, your kitty might be drawn to the salty taste and smell of your tears, or perhaps they recognize your distress and it’s their way of showing you support and love.
Why Do Cats Sniff and Bite Hair?
One of my cats rarely smells my face, but he can’t get enough of my hair instead. It’s a habit he had since he was a tiny kitten. He would knead and bite my hair and then curl up in their midst to sleep. I’ve always wondered if he associated my hair with his mother, and as he grew into a kind giant this infantile behavior remained.
Kneading and biting is usually a behavior commonly observed in kittens. This back and forth motion helps stimulate the production of milk in their mother while they’re feeding. Grown cats can maintain this habit as a stress reliever and you’ll also find your cat kneading your hair when they want to show you affection.
Of course, it could also be your new hair products that your feline companion likes sniffing before going to sleep. There are those feline individuals that might simply like the taste of hair. Unfortunately, cats aren’t famous for their hairdressing skills so perhaps keeping them away from your locks might be a wise choice.
Why Does My Cat Smell My Face When I’m Sleeping?
This face sniffing habit might mainly be a part of your cat’s nighttime routine. The late hours might be a simple coincidence or perhaps it’s the perfect opportunity for your feline companion to catch you off-guard and smell you thoroughly since you’ll probably be sleeping still.
If you sleep with your kitty in the same bed, there’s a great possibility that they’ll smell you and then rub their head against yours before settling down. It’s a sign of affection, recognition, and the enjoyment of your warm breath. You might even find your kitty stare at you while you’re asleep, accompanied by the occasional sniff.
Since cats are crepuscular animals (which means they’re awake at dawn and dusk), it’s quite likely that while you’re asleep, they’ll be playing, eating, and running up and down the apartment. In between their hunting sessions, your kitty will probably come back to sleep next to you a couple of times throughout the night. So, each time your kitty settles down next to you, chances are that they’ll give you a good whiff. If you’re a light sleeper, you’ll probably be quite aware of each sniff.
This hunter’s instinct could also trigger your cat’s need for attention so smelling you might be their way of seeing if you’re asleep and then waking you up for a play session. While in most cases your kitty will smell your face to wake you up, it could also be the other way around.
If you’re a restless sleeper or you tend to snore your cat might smell your face to make sure you’re ok and they might be trying to let you know that you’re being noisy. Lastly, this behavior could be rooted in your kitty’s need for reassurance during the night.
Should You Stop Your Cat From Smelling Your Face?
There’s nothing wrong with your kitty smelling your face unless of course, you notice that your cat’s body language shows signs of aggression. You might be carrying an unfamiliar scent that could possibly distress them or make them extremely curious. If you hear hissing or notice their back is arched, and tail puffed up then it’s advisable that you move away from your kitty.
If you don’t see anything aggressive or distressful about your kitty, but you want them to stop anyway, move them gently away from your face. Cats respond better to positive reinforcement and a calm tone, so by using this method you could stop this behavior.
If you find that your cat’s behavior doesn’t change or if you find it to be distracting especially when you’re asleep then you could train your kitty to sleep in their own bed. One of the easiest ways to do this is to give your cat a bed that they’d prefer to yours. While that can seem like a tall order, something like this awesome half-dome bed on Amazon is a good place to start. There are also several other strategies you can use to keep your cat off the bed and decrease the chances that you’re being woken up with a face sniff and I wrote about them here.
Some scientists believe that sleeping with pets can be distracting, especially for people that are suffering from insomnia or are light sleepers. It’s completely normal to establish boundaries and while it can be difficult, cats are capable learners. Our feline companions can adapt to new rules and environments as long as we make sure to cover their needs.
Why Do Cats Smell Your Face And Then Stare With Their Mouths Open?
I’m sure most of us have seen this peculiar reaction when our cats breathe in, then they suddenly stop with their mouths hanging half open and with a strange look on their face. For some cats, it might be a common reaction to our runners or dirty socks, and even our breath. Who would blame them right?
Just look at this poor kitty who doesn’t seem to be impressed with his owner’s feet!
But why do they make that funny face?
Well, this behavior has a name and it’s called the Flehmen Response. According to John Bradshaw, an Anthrozoologist and author of books on feline behavior, “it’s easy to mistake the behavior for aggression since the animal bares its teeth as it scrunches up its face. But what’s actually happening is that the cat is physically opening up two tiny ducts on the roof of its mouth behind its incisors.”
These ducts connect both the nose and mouth and they’re attached to the vomeronasal organ, also known as the Jacobson’s organ. Bradshaw explains that this organ lies somewhere between the sense of smell and taste. While breathing through the nose is necessary and involuntary, the flehmen response is a voluntary action.
An animal can’t help but automatically take in smells as they breathe, but the flehmen response is a voluntary action, like swallowing. Cats use this organ when they want to investigate specific smells. According to kitten rescuer Hannah Shaw, the flehmen response is, “a cat’s way of analyzing an unfamiliar and interesting scent.”
Giovanni Giuseppe Bellani, author of the book “Felines of the world,” talks about Jacob’s organ saying that, “its main function is to recognize the hormonal level of females in estrus.” So, the Flehmen response is important for mating, marking territory, and intraspecific communication.
So, whenever you find yourself wondering, why does my cat sniff my face and then stares at me with their mouth open, think of the extra information they’re getting from you. It’s simply their way of getting to know you better!
It looks like our kitties aren’t only fluffy and cute but they’re also little investigators of scent. With their special sniffing skills, our fluffy familiars probably have a more rounded and complete perception of us, and the world around them, than we might originally have thought.
Who knew that smelling someone’s face could be this big of a compliment and that their capable noses are one more reason to love them?
So, tell us have you ever asked yourself, why does my cat sniff my face? Do you think it’s adorable or does a part of you simply think that it’s our weird smell that attracts them.