The Nose Knows

Most people are familiar with drug or bomb sniffing dogs as well as dogs that can detect cancers in people. Generally when it comes to scent detection it seems that dogs have the market cornered. New research recently published by the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science explains that our feline companions abilities are nothing to sniff at and, they may be just as helpful as dogs or better at disease detection in humans and search and rescue.

The average cat has about 200 million scent receptors while most dog breeds have much less. The exception is the Bloodhound which has been bred specifically to have a powerful senses of smell and comes in at about 300 million scent receptors or, the Beagle and the German Shepard which have about 225 million. Our four-legged friends sense of smell is very impressive when you compare it to humans who only have about 5 million olfactory cells.

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Cats are discriminating super sniffers using their sense of smell to communicate and also mark territory – Image – AllCat.net

So who has a better sense of smell? The ‘dogs’ vs ‘cats’ debate will likely continue, but it is generally acknowledged by researchers that cats will win out in the best sense of smell category. What makes cats good candidates and better than dogs for helping to sniff out disease or find missing people? Simply, the nose knows how to better discriminate between smells.

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When a cat grimaces or shows the ‘Flehmen’ response they  are taking in and analyzing scents via the vomeronasal organ. Image – Maxhouse.com

Out of the three families of receptor proteins in a cats vomeronasal or Jacobson organ only one has been studied. They are known as V1Rs, and it is believed that the “number of V1R receptor gene variants is correlated with the ability to discriminate between chemical stimuli. Research shows that tigers have 21 gene variants and domestic cats have 30, compared to the 9 functioning V1Rs that dogs have, which would indicate that some felids are able to discriminate between a great variety of chemical stimuli.” Additional research will be required on the V1Rs, and eventually the other receptor proteins V2Rs and FPRs, to find out the extent to which cats can discriminate between scents.

The basis of these finding could mean there is great potential for cats to be used in scent based working roles where dogs may not be ideal either due to size or environment. It would also benefit cats directly by providing humans with a better understanding of how to improve their welfare or implement better enrichment for them at home or in animal shelters.

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 Feliway™ the first synthetically produced pheromone used to help calm and reduce anxiety in cats comes in a spray or diffuser form. It is one way scent is already helping cats. Image – Daily Mail

There have already been a number of documented cases of cats detecting cancer in their owners and also sniffing it out in other animals. I had this experience with one of my own cats when one suddenly started sniffing around the bottom of our other cat who was diagnosed with a tumor in his colon a week later.

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Researchers say that these abilities are underused in cats but they may be better alternatives for medical scent detection or olfactory assistance animals for patients who are uncomfortable with dogs or rats. However, anyone who is owned by a cat knows, that just like dogs, they each have individual personalities which means that not all of them will be gifted with the abilities or desire to do search and sniff work. This leaves us with a final question that is probably on the minds of many as they read this. Can cats be trained? The answer is yes, but it will take patience, positive reinforcement and some really enticing food rewards.

The Science of Spots

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories ‘How the leopard got it spots’ tells us that the feline had them painted on so it could blend into the forest ‘full of trees and bushes and stripy, speckly, patchy-blatchy shadows’. While we know that this is not true, he was close in his assumption in that the coat pattern is reflective of the cats primary environment – cats that hunt in open areas and are active mainly during the day, like lions, tend to have plain coats. Ones that dwell and hunt from trees, forested areas or at night, like leopards or jaguars, tend to have dappled, spotted coats, or in the case of tigers stripy coats.

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Connect the spots – Image – M-H JeevesChemistry World

It is known that coat and colors patterns like the leopards evolved for camouflage and, William Allen a researcher at the University of Bristol reinforced this theory after completing a study of coat pattern images from 37 different types of wild cats. The data from the images along with “information concerning the size of each species, its habitat, characteristic behaviors and more, was then plugged into a mathematical model of pattern development. ” It was determined that spots were most common in species that spend greater amounts of time moving in trees, and in those that are active at lower light levels.

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – It’s all about genetics. Every leopard has a different pattern – female South Luangwa NP, Zambia

Beside environment, there are likely more factors involved which influence the coat patterns of wild cats as they don’t always exactly mirror the animals surroundings. A few anomalies include the cheetah, which prefer open habitats but have retained their spots, this is thought to be the case because they rely mostly on speed, as opposed to camouflage, for hunting. The overall consensus is that coat patterns seem to have evolved to correspond to environments as well as how the wild cats behave within their specific environments.

Allen told BBC News that “When you place cat patterning over the evolutionary tree of cats, you can see that patterning emerges and disappears very frequently within the cat family, which is kind of interesting – it suggests that perhaps particular genetic mechanisms can solve very different appearances of cats.”

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Image ©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Clever cats at home in trees and perfectly camouflaged in low, shady light – Male Leopard South Luangwa NP, Zambia

The leopards beautiful spots are more than skin deep and the mechanism responsible may have a lot to do with chemistry. Alan Turing a mathematician and founder of computer sciences, proposed that chemistry had a role in forming patterns like those on a leopards coat. In Turings only published paper on chemistry, he put forth a set of equations which attempted to explain the patterns seen on leopards. The elements in this process contained and ‘activator’ whose presence caused cells to produce pigmented black hairs and, an ‘inhibitor’ that would cause cells to create white hairs. If they were strongly different it would enable a pattern to grow. Turing was able to demonstrate mathematically that these “simple components could account for a wide range of patterns and, a subtle tweaking of the parameters could alter the pattern to create spots, stripes, swirls, splodges or other markings.”

Much later on Turing’s theory would be used by biologists to support the hypothesis about other patterned animals. Chemists would eventually recreate an example of Turing’s pattern in a lab using a gel which developed a pattern of “yellow dots on a blue background”. It is now acknowledged that the science of spots has turned out to be more complicated than first presented and researchers admit that it does not fully solve the riddle of how the leopard got its spots, even though the theory is still considered a major contributor to determining how patterns form.

For more on the science of spots I highly recommend taking a listen to the BBC Radio 4 Just So Science episode which talks about the science and math behind the patterns and reading Plus Magazine’s Some Just So Stories of animal patterning.

Sunday 17

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If you like this I highly recommend picking up the book How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You by the Oatmeal.