What’s That Cat Spraying on Your Shoes? Not What You Thought

Everything you ever wanted to know about feline anal secretions, courtesy of scientists at UC Davis

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Bengal cat
Bengal catCredit: AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Your cat loves you. He loves you so much that he anoints your territory and possessions with secretions sprayed from internal sacs by his little anus, adorably wiggling his tushie and tail while doing it.

Until now, you thought you reeked of your cat’s own anal gland secretions — and that was surely a comfort to you. But now scientists from the Genome Center at the University of California, Davis, aided by an aerospace lab, say that in fact your cat has been spraying your home and wardrobe with aromatic chemicals manufactured by bacteria that live in his anal sacs, as reported in PLOS ONE.

Don’t yield to that stab of disenchantment. Your tom has surely been spraying you and yours because of love and in order to deter other male cats from expressing their love for you. Not at all because his anal sacs are pressing or because he hates that Felis catus next door.

“Cats use a lot of volatile chemicals for signaling, and they probably don’t make them all,” spells out David Coil, project scientist at the Genome Center and an author on the paper.

Probably? Well, their study sample was a tad on the small size. This whole paper, which may disillusion cat codependents in the millions, was based a sample group of one cat.

That one can was a male Bengal, whose owner volunteered its anal secretions for the purposes of this research.

Bengal catCredit: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

Bengal cats (Felis Prionailurus bengalensis) are an artifact of people, not nature, in the sense that a Chihuahua, a Great Dane and a chicken so breast-heavy it can’t walk are artifacts of people, not nature. We bred them that way.

Bengals were bred to have tawny base fur and black spots, making them look a little bit like leopards (if one squints). Like all cats they are insanely beautiful. Like all inbred animals they may be subject to hereditary degeneration — but now we know that one of the species, and by extrapolation all male cats, aren’t shooting just their own fluids on your junk. It’s spiked with germ juice.

OK. Having elucidated that said boy Bengal used bacteria-laden secretions as a marker, all that remained was to sequence the DNA of the bacteria. This showed that not many bacterial species are involved: “There are not a lot of players there,” said Coil.

The next job was to chemically analyze the odor of that cat’s anal laser in a state-of-the-art chemistry analysis facility — Prof. Cristina Davis’ laboratory in the UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Davis’ lab focuses on detecting and characterizing low levels of volatile organic compounds, the paper explains. The analysis was done by a postdoc named Mei Yamaguchi.

Bengal catCredit: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

They were able to detect 67 volatile compounds released by the bacterial cultures. Fifty-two of these compounds were also found directly in the Bengal cat’s anal sac secretions.

So, the conclusion is that much of the scent your cat uses to mark its territory and you are made by bacteria.

Which begs the question, the team admits, of how cats can distinguish each other’s scent marks if most of the stuff is made by shared bacteria. Theoretically, it could be that the overriding whiff is made by the cats themselves, not the germs. You know you want to believe that. Go for it.


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