Our cats may have cute, tiny noses, but don’t be fooled. Their sense of smell is mighty—around 14 times stronger than that of humans (1). This gives them a remarkable ability to discern a wide range of scents—and it’s clear they like some scents far more than others.
Pet parents may be familiar with smells that cats hate, like citrus or a dirty litter box. But what smells do cats love? We’ll share eight scents that most cats find simply irresistible, but first, let’s cover some feline olfaction basics.
Why Do Cats Have a Strong Sense of Smell?
Cats have an exceptionally developed sense of smell, with 50 to 80 million odor-sensitive cells. In comparison, humans have just 5 million of these cells (2).
Felines also possess a special scent-detecting organ called the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ. Located in the roof of the mouth, it allows cats to taste-smell certain pheromones, offering additional information beyond what their nose detects. Cats are pulling pheromones into this organ when they exhibit the “flehmen response,” a peculiar, open-mouthed grimace cats make to enhance their perception of a scent.
Cats rely on their keen sense of smell to interpret their environment, recognize fellow felines, choose food, and identify potential threats, such as predators or toxins. This reliance on scent harks back to their evolutionary past as wild predators.
Why Do Cats Like Certain Smells?
Many of the smells cats are drawn to reflect their basic needs, such as food and safety.
Cats have far fewer taste buds than humans—about 470 vs. 10,000 respectively (1). As a result, cats use their sense of smell far more than taste in deciding what to eat, explains Stephen Quandt, a certified feline training and behavior specialist and founder of Stephen Quandt Feline Behavior Associates.
Pheromones, which are chemical substances produced by animals for communication, also play a significant role in shaping a cat’s scent preferences. They’re scentless to humans but have profound effects on animal behavior. Scents that mimic these pheromones can be attractive to cats.
When a cat is attracted to a smell, they may rub their face against the source, roll over it, purr, try to eat it, or exhibit a flehmen response. On the flip side, if a cat doesn’t like a smell, they tend to retreat, run away, or show signs of distaste, like wrinkling their nose or shaking their head.
While there are certain scents that most cats tend to enjoy, not all cats react to smells in the same way. Just as humans have personal likes and dislikes, cats also exhibit individual variations in their scent preferences.
What Smells Do Cats Love? 8 Aromas That Attract Felines
Since scent serves as a fundamental aspect of a cat’s sensory and communication experience, it’s important to provide our feline friends with a variety of appealing and safe smells to explore and enjoy.
In doing so, we can enhance their indoor environment and fulfill their instinctual need for curiosity, discovery, and engagement, says Quandt.
Let’s explore eight aromas cats generally favor and why they appeal to our whiskered companions.
Catnip, an herb in the mint family, is well-known for its intoxicating effect on many cats. This effect is due to nepetalactone, a compound in the plant that may mimic the structure of a feline pheromone associated with mating behaviors. This explains why cats under the influence of nepetalactone exhibit behaviors such as rolling, rubbing, purring, and leaping. In rare instances, cats may become aggressive.
When a cat encounters nepetalactone, the compound enters the cat’s nasal tissue and binds to receptors that stimulate sensory neurons in the brain, explains Quandt. The effect is a harmless “high” that lasts about 5 to 15 minutes.
Interestingly, not all cats go cuckoo for catnip. Sensitivity to catnip is likely inherited, and 1 out of every 3 cats lacks the genetic predisposition to it (3).
Catnip can be administered via catnip-filled toys, catnip spray, solid catnip balls, fresh catnip plants, or dried catnip that can be sprinkled on toys, scratching posts, and other items.
2. Valerian Root
Valerian root is an herb that works much the same as catnip, creating a euphoric effect in most cats—at least initially. After a few minutes, the hyperactive effects wear off, leaving cats feeling calm and drowsy.
Valerian root’s effects lie in a specific compound it contains: actinidine. Like catnip, it’s thought that this compound stimulates the same receptors in the cat’s brain that respond to feline pheromones.
Never give your cat human valerian root supplements. Instead, stick to cat toys filled with valerian root or a small sprinkling of dried, finely minced root.
Anecdotally, many cats seem to like the aroma of vanilla. Because of this appeal, some supplements and medications, such as Credelio CAT, include vanilla to entice picky felines.
Credelio CAT is an oral flea and tick treatment for cats that starts working in as little as 8 hours and prevents reinfestation for one month (4). This small, chewable tablet is a great choice for cat parents who struggle with topical flea applications. In a U.S. field study, cat parents successfully administered the tablet 99.5 percent of the time (5). Nearly 47 percent of the cats voluntarily accepted the tablets when they were offered by hand, on the floor, in an empty food bowl, or with food.
If you’ve ever noticed that your cat tries to steal bites of bread, this is because cats are attracted to the scent and taste of yeast. One study showed that cats preferred foods with a yeast extract added (6).
Cats can occasionally eat small amounts of baked bread, but it shouldn’t be included as a regular part of your cat’s diet. Ensure any breads you let your cat taste don’t include toxins like garlic.
In addition to vanilla, Credelio CAT includes yeast in its oral tablets to further entice our furry companions to consume this flea-and-tick-zapping medication.
5. Silver Vine
Also known as matatabi, silver vine is a plant native to Japan and China that often attracts cats with its irresistible scent. The smell of silver vine elicits a similar response to catnip in many cats.
However, “studies have shown that silver vine is more likely to affect cats than catnip,” says Quandt. This may be because it has additional chemicals that cats respond to, such as actinidine, iridomyrmecin, and isodihydronepetalactone (3).
Silver vine is commonly available as sticks or powder.
You might be surprised to learn that some cats enjoy the scent of olives. This is believed to be due to a group of chemicals in olives known as isoprenoids, which are similar in structure to the nepetalactone found in catnip, says Quandt.
If your cat likes the smell of olives, they might enjoy the taste too. You can give your cat a tiny piece of an olive (not a whole one) a couple of times a week. Just ensure it’s thoroughly rinsed of salt or seasoning, and that the pit has been removed.
7. Animal Protein
For many cats, nothing beats the tantalizing scent of fish or meat. These aromas are incredibly attractive to cats because they’re obligate carnivores, which means they require meat to fulfill their nutritional needs.
Smelling fish or meat can provoke behaviors like licking their lips, meowing, and showing increased alertness or excitement. Many cats will try to reach for the source of the aroma, drawn by the tantalizing scent of their preferred prey.
It might surprise some pet parents to learn that one of the smells cats love most is the scent of their human companions.
“Cats create community scent by transferring their scent to us and taking some of our scent on them,” says Quandt. This essentially signals that you are a part of their “colony” and helps them feel safe and secure.
Your cat achieves this scent exchange by rubbing parts of their body that contain social pheromones (cheeks, forehead, and around the mouth) against you and objects in your home, explains Quandt.
Similarly, if your cat enjoys sleeping on your clothing, it’s often because they’re attracted to and feel comforted by your scent.
Smells Cats Like: Why It Matters
Knowing which smells your cat loves can significantly improve their quality of life and even their health. Here are some ways to apply this knowledge:
- Create a safe, comfortable living environment: Scent can be used to help your cat feel more comfortable, calm, and safe in certain situations. For instance, placing an unwashed article of your clothing in their cat carrier can help relax them when traveling to the vet. Another example is adding a loved scent to a new bed or carrier to make it more inviting, ease transitions, and reduce stress.
- Assist with medication administration: Getting cats to take necessary medication can sometimes be challenging. Some medications, such as Credelio CAT, have been formulated with enticing scents or flavors to make administering them easier.
- Adding enrichment: Scents like catnip, silver vine, or valerian root can be used to stimulate play and exercise, which is crucial for your cat’s physical and mental health. Sprinkling some of these enticing aromas on their toys or scratching posts can motivate them to engage in play behavior, reduce boredom, and potentially mitigate behavioral issues like inappropriate scratching.
- Use for training purposes: Scents that appeal to your cat can be used in training for positive reinforcement scenarios. For example, a catnip-sprayed toy or a tasty salmon treat can serve as an excellent reward for a successful training session.
How to Help Your Cat Have Positive Experiences with Scent
Understanding your cat’s scent preferences can be a fun journey of discovery. Here’s how you can decode your feline’s favorites:
- Do a “sniff” test: Present your cat with a variety of scents, one by one, and watch your cat’s reaction. Positive responses can include purring, cheek rubbing, kneading, or even rolling around in delight. Signs that your cat doesn’t like a scent may include hissing, backing away, turning their head away from the item, shaking their head, gagging, or appearing agitated. Never force a smell on your cat, and always let them retreat if they wish.
- Monitor for changes over time: Cats’ preferences can change as they age or experience changes in health. Regularly retesting your cat’s favorite scents can help you stay attuned to their preferences.
- Use your judgment: Just because your cat is attracted to a smell doesn’t mean it’s safe or beneficial for them. For instance, some cats may be drawn to the smell of substances like antifreeze or lilies. However, these substances are highly toxic and potentially lethal if ingested, even in small amounts. Always prioritize your cat’s safety and consult a professional if you’re unsure if something is safe for cats.
- Use in moderation: Potent scents like catnip and silver vine should be used in moderation, as too much exposure can reduce their novelty and, therefore, their effectiveness. Always monitor your cat’s reactions to ensure they’re enjoying the experience and not becoming overstimulated.
- Consult your vet if you notice sudden changes: If your cat suddenly seems repelled by a smell they once loved, it could be a sign of a health issue, especially if accompanied by other changes in behavior, eating, or litter box habits. Always consult your vet if you’re concerned.
Your cat’s love of certain smells is not just a cute quirk—it can be an important aspect of their care and well-being. By paying attention to their scent preferences and using this knowledge wisely, you can help make your feline friend’s world even more enjoyable.
- Ahmet Yavuz Pekel, Serkan Barış Mülazımoğlu & Nüket Acar (2020) Taste preferences and diet palatability in cats, Journal of Applied Animal Research, 48:1, 281-292, DOI: 10.1080/09712119.2020.1786391
- Douglas, Kate. (2009). The great pet showdown. New Scientist. 204. 32–37. 10.1016/S0262-4079(09)63262-0.
- Bol, S., Caspers, J., Buckingham, L. et al. Responsiveness of cats (Felidae) to silver vine (Actinidia polygama), Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). BMC Vet Res 13, 70 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-017-0987-6
- Wright I. (2018). Lotilaner – a novel formulation for cats provides systemic tick and flea control. Parasites & vectors, 11(1), 407. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13071-018-2970-x
- Chappell, K., Paarlberg, T., Seewald, W. et al. A randomized, controlled field study to assess the efficacy and safety of lotilaner flavored chewable tablets (Credelio™ CAT) in eliminating fleas in client-owned cats in the USA. Parasites Vectors 14, 127 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13071-021-04617-5
- Oliveira, Rúbia & Haese, Douglas & Kill, João & Lima, Anderson & Malini, Pablo & Thompson, Guilherme. (2016). Palatability of cat food with sodium pyrophosphate and yeast extract. Ciência Rural. 46. 2202-2205. 10.1590/0103-8478cr20151651.