Last Updated on October 12, 2021 by Julia Wilson
What are scent glands?
Scent glands are specialised glands that produce semi-viscous secretions which contain odour messengers known as pheromones that impact the behaviour of cats around them. Most cat lovers have observed their cat rubbing against objects in the home and even against people. Rubbing deposits a chemical scent (pheromone) which relays a number of messages. Scent marking also enables the cat to convey a message even when he or she is no longer around.
The scent glands are a modified apocrine gland and develop in association with hair follicles. These glands open near the surface of the skin into the infundibulum of the associated hair follicle.
What is scent marking?
Scent marking is an important form of communication for cats. It enables them to delineate territory, recognise friends or foes, avoid confrontation and signal to members of the opposite sex that they’re ready to mate and enhance familiarity in the home environment. Cats who live in the same household recognise each other in part, by smell. Non-recognition aggression is a phenomenon where a cat who has recently returned from the veterinarian will be met with a frosty reception from household cats because they have returned smelling different.
Cats greet each other (and people) by touching noses and rubbing cheeks followed by turning around and presenting the anus. While humans are less than thrilled at the cat’s rear end six inches away from their face, cats learn a lot about each other such as sexual receptiveness, health and identity.
Colony cats produce a collective smell by scent marking over each other’s scent, which creates a boundary to keep non-colony cats away.
Most scent marking is undetectable to humans, with exception of urine spraying and anal gland secretions. However, to other cats, they are important messengers. Cats in the same household frequently mark the same areas with their scent which creates a communal household scent they are all familiar with.
Location of the scent glands
The scent glands are located throughout the body and can convey different messages depending on the object marked and the location of the scent gland(s). Scent glands on the face are friendly, in fact, Feliway is a synthetic version of these facial pheromones and is used by veterinary practices and in cat homes to reduce stress.
Head, face and lips: The facial glands located on the ears, temples, cheeks and chin produce feline facial pheromones which contain 40 different chemicals. These pheromones trigger a sense of calm in cats.
Cats who rub their head and lips against familiar objects are marking them as theirs. Head bunting towards humans or other animals (allorubbing) is a friendly gesture, they are happy and at ease. In essence, the cat is telling you he or she likes you and wants to mark you as a member of their colony.
The clip above shows Melody rubbing several areas of her face on the chair.
Supracaudal gland: Also known as violet gland, the supracaudal gland lies on the upper surface of the cat’s tail. Stud tail is a rare condition characterised by hair loss, greasiness and blackheads due to increased secretion of the supracaudal gland in intact male cats.
Feet: Scent glands are present between the cat’s toes. When the cat strops, he or she deposits feline interdigital pheromone (FIS) onto the object as well as leaving characteristic scratches.
Anus: Two pea-sized anal glands are located on either side of the anus and deposit a foul-smelling liquid onto the stool as the cat defecates. Free-ranging male cats may engage in fecal marking or middening. This is the deposit of feces in prominent positions for rival cats to find.