Have you ever seen your cat sniff something, and then lean back a make a weird, funny face?
Darby, our adult cat, was a nervous wreck when we took our kitten, Clancy, to be neutered. The moment we returned home and let Clancy out of the carrier, Darby was shoving us aside to check on his little buddy. He leaned in, took a good whiff — and then reared back with his mouth open, his golden eyes squinted, and his lips curled. With that feline grimace, it was almost as if he was saying “phew!”
It turns out, Darby wasn’t actually commenting on Clancy’s fresh from the vet smell. So why did he make that face?
The flehman response
Darby was actually taking a really thorough smell. According to the Humane Society, that funny face is actually called the flehman Response. Cats have an extra organ for smell called the Jacobson’s organ or vomeronasal organ. Located in the roof of their mouths behind their front teeth, it allows cats to inhale through their mouths and gather extra information about a curious aroma.
Where did the name come from? Apparently flehman means “lip curl” in German. It seems appropriate, doesn’t it?
Cats aren’t the only animals to exhibit the flehman Response. Other wild cats, like tigers, also do it. So do horses, donkeys, deer and cattle, according to the Animal Behavior Associates website.
The next time I take a trip to the zoo or visit one of our local dairy farms for their delicious ice cream, I’m going to have to keep my eyes open. Who knows how many flehman responses I can spot now that I know what I’m looking for.
As for my two cats, now that the smell of the vet’s office has worn off, they don’t exhibit the flehman response around each other anymore. They do occasionally grimace around my husband’s battered work boots, but, in that situation, I’m sticking with the theory that they’re saying “phew.”
Want to read more about why cats do the things they do?
Why Does My Cat Hide?
Why Does My Cat Trip Me?
“Cat Chat: Understanding Feline Language” — The Human Society of the United States
“Flehmen aka Flehmen Response” — About.com
“Who’s Flehman Who?” — Animal Behavior Associates