how to tell if your cat can't smell
Cat Health and Wellness

Do Older Cats Lose Their Sense of Smell?

A cat’s sense of smell is crucial for its survival. Cats use scent to find food and mates, as well as to seek previously marked territories. A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times stronger than that of humans due to their relatively larger nasal organs.

A cat’s sense of smell, hearing, and vision declines with age due to oxidative stress. With improved veterinary care and pet nutrition, cats are less susceptible to the effects of aging.

One major concern associated with senior cats not being able to smell properly is nutrition. If a cat’s sense of smell isn’t as sharp as it used to be, the chances are that it will lose its appetite. This can result in lethargy and weight loss.

Olfactory Problems in Older Cats

Just like with any other organ, cats lose their ability to smell as part of the natural aging process.

Aging causes muscle cells, nerve cells and glandular cells to become less effective at eliminating accumulated toxins in the body, resulting in oxidative stress.

This allows specific genes to be turned on, resulting in cells being programmed to switch off or die during a process called apoptosis.

Cats rely on their sense of smell to perform numerous everyday activities, including finding food and eating. If your cat isn’t interested in eating, it could be due to loss of smell as a result of aging.

Cats have an extra organ located in the upper back region of their mouths. This organ helps cats detect pheromones and thus, find prey animals and suitable mates.

Humans are more visual sensory mammals, whereas animals are primarily reliant on their sense of smell and audition. Therefore, it can be difficult to understand why some cats are pickier with their food as they age.

If you notice that your cat has become more finicky with its food or is experiencing a loss of appetite, consider taking your pet to a vet to rule out other factors.

Loss of appetite is often a symptom of severe oral issues or an underlying medical condition that affects a cat’s sense of smell.

Usually decreased appetite in cats is a result of an upper respiratory infection, where inflammation and nasal discharge impairs the function of the olfactory senses.

If your cat’s loss of appetite and sense of smell is a result of an underlying medical or oral condition, chances are its eating habits will return to normal once the condition has been treated.

How to Treat Loss of Appetite in Senior Cats

In senior cats above the age of 11, loss of smell and appetite are considered a normal aspect of age-related decline.

Although most cats will not let themselves starve, it is critical that you avoid any level of nutritional deficiencies or malnutrition during their senior years. If your cat isn’t able to smell well, it may respond better to foods with stronger odors.

Here’s what you can do to help your cat eat better during its senior years:

Different Cat Food

If your cat’s diet is purely based on dry food only, consider offering it wet or canned food instead. Wet foods tend to be more odorous than dry food.

You can also try mixing some wet food or chicken broth with your cat’s regular food to increase its aroma. Make sure you choose a high-quality formula designed for senior cats.

Heat Your Cat’s Food

Heating wet food and vaporizing it helps release more aroma from your cat’s meal. In general, any heated food, whether it is wet or dry, will have a stronger odor than room temperature food.

Avoid offering your cat food that is too hot as it may result in mouth burns. Using metal or plastic bowls in the microwave to heat food is also not recommended.

Season Your Cat’s Food

Many brands now offer something called “toppers” which can be added to your cat’s everyday food.

These include aromatic sauces or tiny bits of freeze-dried fish or meats that can be mixed into or poured over dry food. And remember that spices, such as garlic and onions, are toxic for cats.

If your cat is experiencing a decreased appetite due to age-related loss of olfaction, chances are enhancing its food in terms of smell will help improve your cat’s eating habits.

cat can't smell food

Other Dietary Changes That Encourage Cats to Eat

As cats age, their sense of smell and taste diminish with time, along with their ability to chew food. Crush your cat’s food into smaller pieces or soften it with tuna water or chicken broth to help your older cat eat sufficiently without struggling to chew.

This is vital for senior cats with sensitive mouths due to tooth loss. Increasing the meat content of your cat’s food will also enhance its flavor, making it a more appetizing meal for your kitty.

When switching to different foods, you should do so gradually. Start by mixing in the new food with the old food to help your cat slowly adjust to its new meals. If your senior cat refuses to eat despite making these changes, see a vet to rule out other causes.

Does Your Cat Have an Upper Respiratory Infection?

Loss of smell and decreased appetite are common symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections in cats. A cat’s nose, sinus and throat area is highly prone to bacterial and viral infections.

Viruses are the most common cause of feline upper respiratory infections, with the feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus accounting for up to 90% of all contagious respiratory infections in multi-cat homes and shelters.

Viruses can be transferred from one cat to another via coughing and sneezing or while grooming or sharing water and food bowls.

Once a cat is infected with the above viruses, it becomes a carrier for the rest of its life. A cat carrying these viruses may not show any clinical signs of illness, but it can still transmit the virus to other cats.

It’s common for cats to develop secondary bacterial infections from these viral infections. Upper respiratory infections in cats can also be caused by bacteria, which primarily include Chlamydia and Bordetella. Bacterial infections are also typically transmitted in multi-cat households and shelters.

Some cats are more susceptible to upper respiratory infections than others. For example, a cat’s age, physical condition, and vaccination status can play a significant role in its vulnerability to infection.

Flat-faced breeds, such as Persians, have a higher likelihood of developing upper respiratory infections because of their facial structure.

Symptoms of Upper Respiratory Tract Infection

If you suspect your cat isn’t eating or isn’t able to smell properly due to an upper respiratory tract infection, look out for the following signs:

  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Drooling or gagging
  • Nasal discharge (clear or colored)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rubbing the eyes or squinting
  • Depression
  • Oral and nasal ulcers

How Cats Smell

The sense of smell is the most developed sense in cats, and it is critical for a cat’s overall wellbeing. Compared to humans, cats have a much larger portion of their brains dedicated to olfaction.

Cats communicate via the scent in feces, urine, and pheromones from glands situated in the mouth, forehead, chin, cheeks, tail, lower back, and paws.

Cats also have a secondary olfactory organ, known as the vomeronasal gland that is used in detecting and interpreting pheromones.

Pheromones among cats are primary communicating tools that can tell a lot about other cats nearby – from whether they are male or female to whether they are in heat.

Scent Marking

Cats are known for head-bumping and rubbing against objects and humans. Also known as bunting, this behavior among cats serves as a means of depositing scents on substrates.

This method of scent marking can be a cat’s way of displaying social dominance. It’s also common for domestic cats to rub against humans while asking for something, such as food or rubs.

Cats use scent marking as a form of olfactory communication. Cats release scent by rubbing the sebaceous glands along the paw pads, forehead, chin, tail and forehead onto surfaces, animals or humans. A dominant male cat may rub onto objects with its cheeks more than less dominant males.

Urine spraying is another form of territorial scent marking in cats. Cats can distinguish between urine that has been sprayed and urine that has been deposited in a squatting position.

Sprayed urine is often thicker, and oiler than non-sprayed urine and may consist of additional secretions from the anal sacs. This creates a much stronger communication.

According to Chemistry & Biology, while cats engage in both urine deposits and rubbing of the scent glands, spraying is most pronounced among unneutered males competing with the same sex.

An amino acid called felinine found in the urine of adult male cats is a precursor to a compound containing sulfur that’s responsible for the strong odor from cat urine.

When a cat detects the pheromones from urine, it exhibits a unique gaping facial expression where it uses it vomeronasal organs to identify the sex of the cat that has urinated (the Flehmen response.)

Why Does My Cat Rub Against Me?

Cats tend to rub their tails, sides, and faces on people, as well as familiar cats and dogs to deposit scent and mark them as belonging to a specific group.

Cats use scent marking as a means of reclaiming their territory. Therefore, if your cat rubs against you, it means it is claiming you as part of its group.

Another reason cats rub against humans is to let them know that they want something. If a cat is hungry, it may rub against your legs to gently remind you that it is its mealtime.

cat lost sense of smell

Some cats may also use rubbing if they’re looking for attention, whether they want to play or want you to rub them in return.

Head butting or bunting is a sign of affection among cats. Cats typically use bunting with other cats and even humans when they have a positive relationship with them.

You may notice your cat purring while it does this. Although most cats bunt with cats, they are comfortable with; others may use it as a signal for social ranking.

Jacobson’s Organ and the Flehman Response

The vomeronasal organ, also called the Jacobson’s organ is a spectacular organ found in cats that play a major role in a cat’s sense of smell.

Primarily used in identifying pheromones, the Jacobson’s organ is found right behind the front teeth where it links with the nasal cavity. According to Anatomy and Cell Biology, the Jacobson’s organ plays a vital role in a cat’s social and sexual behaviors.

A cat may open its mouth slightly to allow its vomeronasal organ to open up the ducts that connect to the nasal cavity. This brings air into the organ, enabling the cat to detect certain pheromones it comes in contact with.

During this process, a cat may exhibit a strange facial expression, somewhat resembling a grimace and other times a slight smile, also called the Flehman response.

How Cats Use Smell

Cats use smell for a myriad of functions, which are as follows.

To Smell Food

As soon as a kitten is born, it uses smell to locate its mother for milk. As cats grow, they use their sense of smell to find food, even if it leads them to unlikely places.

An aging cat or a cat with an upper respiratory infection may have a compromised sense of smell, so it loses its appetite for food. This can be improved by heating the food and increasing its odor.

Marking Their Territory

Male cats use scent marking via urine or pheromones from the glands on their feet and face to mark their territorial boundaries.

Cats frequently visit their territorial boundaries to redeposit their scent markings when the odor reduces. Cats that identify these markings may either respect the other cat’s territory or try to take over it by depositing their scent markings.

To Find a Mate

Female cats in their estrus cycle (in heat) release a potent sexual pheromone that can be detected by males in distant locations.

Female cats may also identify preferred mates using their territorial scent markings.

Warn Against a Threat

A cat may use its nose and Jacobson’s organ to sniff out a potential threat or enemy. This sniffing action is often accompanied by a stiff body, pointed whiskers and ears pointed backward.

A Cat’s Sense of Smell vs. Humans

A cat’s sense of smell is fourteen times stronger than that of humans.

Cats have numerous scent-sensitive cells on their noses that make up their olfactory epithelium. A cat’s olfactory epithelium contains twice as many receptors as humans, indicating that they have a much sharper sense of smell.

A cat can have up to 80 million smell-sensitive cells in its nose. Humans, on the other hand, only have 5 million of these cells.

Furthermore, cats are also equipped with the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ that allows them to pick up a wide range of pheromones from other cats, as well as humans.

A Cat’s Sense of Smell and Human Behavior

In addition to finding a mate and marking their territories, cats also use their ability to pick up chemical scents released by humans to determine their behavior and emotions.

Some of these human behaviors and emotions include the following.


Most animals, including cats, behave differently when a person is afraid. This is mainly because cats can pick up the adrenaline released from your body.

Humans release adrenaline when their bodies are preparing for “fight or flight” stimulated during stressful situations, such as when they’re scared.

When you’re trying to interact with your cat while feeling scared, your cat will not only smell your fear, but will also respond differently according to changes in your heart rate and your behavior.

In most cases, a domestic cat will either try to get away from you or mimic your panicked state. Your cat may hiss at the unusual odor or become agitated.

Feeling Content

When you’re happy, in love or are in a positive state of mind, your cat can smell it. When humans are in a good mood, they release endorphins, which can be picked up by cats.

Your cat may respond to your positive mood by sitting on your lap and purring away while you rub its back, helping you release more endorphins.

When you speak to your cat in a calm and soothing tone, it is likely to come closer to you. Even a slight change in tone as a result of your affection can lead to a positive response from your cat.

Feeling Sad

Most cats tend to comfort their human companions when they’re sad or crying.

Although many individuals claim this is because their cat loves them, a more likely explanation would be that cats can sniff out the hormones we release when we are sad, crying or upset.

Because your cat looks at you as its companion, it may head bump you and attempt to bond with you. However, don’t be surprised if your cat continues about its business as soon as you start feeling better again.

When your cat’s sense of smell starts to decline, it can be a worrying time for a pet owner. But it’s a normal and natural part of the aging process, along with other health problems in senior cats. You can make life easier for your cat, and you should also get them checked over by a vet.