How Come Cats Leave Their Mouths Open After They Smell Something?

Originally published May 5, 2016

Caymus after smelling Trigg's butt. Gross. April 17, 2010
Caymus after smelling Trigg’s butt. Gross. April 17, 2010

My childhood Ragdoll cat, Rags used leave his mouth open after he would smell things quite frequently, and I came to hate it because it was often after smelling urine or another cat’s butt.  But, when I found out what he was doing, I thought it was pretty rad.

You know what I am talking about – where they leave their mouth slightly open and then sort of daze off for a second and then lick their nose and close their mouth again?

Last week, I ran across the street to a neighbor’s house to grab their recycle bin that had been at the curb for a few days – I figured they were out of town, so I put the bin behind their house and came back home.  When I came back home, Charlie would not stop smelling me and I

Flehmen Reaction in Cats
Caymus still taking it in. April 17, 2010

couldn’t figure out why until later when I had stopped by my parents house and Caymus couldn’t leave me alone either – Caymus never shows attention like that, so I knew I had something on me.  Came to find out that the recycle bin had been sprayed by a male cat and I had the smell of urine on my pants – LOVELY.

So when I came home, I immediately changed out of my

Trigg Using His Jacobson's Organ
Trigg Using His Jacobson’s Organ

pants and had Charlie and Trigg give them a good whiff, so that I could get a photo for this post!

There’s a fantastic website called, Pet Tails that lays this out more in detail and that’s where I got this information.

The act of opening the mouth and drawing up the air to the Jacobson’s organ is called the “flehmen reaction”.

Charlie using his Jacobson's organ
Charlie using his Jacobson’s organ

Essentially, the cat is opening her mouth to suck in the air into the Jacobson’s organ and take a really deep sniff of the odor.

Charlie's flehmen reaction
Charlie’s flehmen reaction

This special sensory organ called the vomeronasal organ or Jacobson’s organ allows a cat to have 14 times the sense of smell of a human.  The Jacobson’s organ which consists of two fluid-filled sacs that connect to the cat’s nasal cavity is located on the roof of their mouth behind their teeth.

The reason they look dazed for a second or two is because they can learn a lot of information about their surroundings through their sense of smell. They mark territory using the scent glands on their cheeks and paws. The glands

Charlie licking his nose after the flehmen reaction
Charlie licking his nose after the flehmen reaction

secrete pheromones, which are chemical substances that stimulate a behavioral response, such as an avoidance or aggressive reaction. Pheromones are also found in saliva, feces, and urine. When cats “spray” it’s another way they are marking territory.

Have you caught your kitty with his or her mouth open?  What were they smelling when you did?  Or did you know what they were smelling?

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