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Conventional wisdom says that providing your cat with an item that smells like you provides comfort in unfamiliar settings. It’s often recommended that cat parents bring a piece of clothing when a cat has to be left at the vet or in any unfamiliar environment. But are cats really comforted by our scent?

A recent study looked at this issue. The research focused on the concept of the Secure Base Effect, which is based on the premise that being with someone you are bonded with can reduce stress and help you feel comfortable exploring unfamiliar environments, a theory first developed in humans. The study looked at whether a human, or an object that smelled like them, would provide a “secure base” for a cat left alone in an unfamiliar space.

The results showed that most cats were comforted by the presence of their owners when being in a strange place, but did not receive much comfort from the presence of the human-scented item once their human left the space.

Dr. Mikel Delgado took a closer look at the study on her blog, What Your Cat Wants.

I think the fact that the study was conducted in a laboratory setting with a stranger present limits the validity of the results. Like Mikel, I would like to see a study that eliminates the “stranger effect,” and I’d also like to know whether cats would be more comforted by an item that smells like them, such as a favorite bed or blanket, when in an unfamiliar environme nt.

Click here for more information about the study.

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3 Comments on Does Your Cat Find Your Scent Comforting?

  1. I found the study interesting but I also think that being in a lab setting with a stranger present does limit the validity of the results. My experience with my cats has been different… I have had several cats that are definitely comforted by the scent of my clothes and when they were left at the vet it made a difference for them. Hachi is one of those cats… he was a feral kitten born to a very feral mom. I was finally successful at trapping him by the time he was 6 months old. Socializing him took time, eventually he became very loving and bonded to me. But he has always been a jumpy and nervous cat and is now 10 years old. If I leave my clothes or pajamas on the bed he rolls on them, kneads, purrs, rubs his face all over them and will fall asleep on them. It’s obvious they make him feel good. When he needed to stay overnight at the vet for surgery I worried about his stress so I took a tshirt for him. They said he slept with it, When he sleeps with me he always touches me or lays right against me.
    Like people, all cats are different and I think a variety of results are possible. I pet sit for cats only and have many years experience, part of this often deals with behavior and health issues. I use natural and alternative health for myself and there is a particular stress oil that I dab on my neck area. I’ve noticed that new cats, nervous cats and the cats that people tell me I won’t ever see because they always hide – respond to this scent on me. So I started putting a dab on my pants legs and arms and the results were consistently positive to the point that these cats ended up being calm and loving with me to their people’s amazement. People kept saying things like “you really are the cat whisper” and “my cat never does that with anyone”. These results have been consistent over the years and it all starts with scent to help gain trust – they associate a positive scent with me. So I am a believer that cats can respond to our scent for comfort and feeling safe.

  2. While olfactory senses give comfort to humans, we should not be quick to anthropomorphize our furry kids and assume it works the same for them. We’ve all had the experience of having our cats fall asleep on top of an item of our clothing or on our bed, chair, etc. That may simply be a matter of familiar texture. It’s been my experience that my cat is most comforted by HER blanket or HER sleeping pad. HER scent gives her some degree of comfort, presumably because she associates it with feeling safe and comfortable with that object.

  3. It makes sense that the familiar scented item is helpful, but they are still in a different place and the sounds and smells of it are still alarming to the cat. One time when Nani had to be in the kitty hospital overnight, I took my fuzzy robe for her to lay on. I guess it didn’t help much as she peed on it. Either that or she was telling me how she felt about the situation.

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