Second Chance: Cat “Stinky Face”

Second Chance: Cat “Stinky Face”

Dear Pet Column

My cat makes often makes this weird face when she is sniffing an object and looks up with her lips curled and slightly back, a look of utter disgust/confusion/concern that makes me laugh heartily. I call it “cat stinky face” and my friends say their cats do it too. Why do cats do this and should I be concerned?


“Cat stinky face” is a real thing with a real scientific name, flehmen. As a cat myself, I can assure you there is nothing alarming about this gesture. Although it looks comical, it is actually highly purposeful and interesting.

Yes, the flehmen response looks like a cat frozen with its mouth open, with its lips rolled back over the teeth to resemble a sneer. Although we cats can have strong opinions and will communicate them to you, this cat stinky face isn’t necessarily a snooty reaction but a type of sniffing. It is unique in that, while “flehmening,” instead of using our nostrils, we are inhaling the air through our open mouths.

Anthrozoologist John Bradshaw shared with Slate magazine that the flehmen response opens up two small ducts, also known as the nasopalatine canals located on the roof of an animal’s mouth behind the incisors. These ducts then go through the roof of the mouth and join up with the vomeronasal organ, which functions as an auxiliary olfactory bulb of sorts.

Bradshaw shared that some scientists believe the flehmen response does something that’s between the sense of smell and taste. (I knew it – we DO have a sixth sense!) So the flehmen isn’t an automatic way to take in smells, as one does through involuntarily breathing. It is more of a voluntary and controlled process – serving a specific purpose.

So what is the purpose of cat stinky face (so much for fun to say than “flehmen”)? It is believed we cats do this to detect chemical stimuli, such as pheromones,  present in urine and feces, or areas that cats have marked with scent glands.

Male cats usually flehmen more than female cats as it is mostly used in relation to mating and using scents to determine compatibility and if timing is right (wink wink).

A few more fun flehmen facts:

It is not restricted to cats. Along with domestic cats, large cats such as lions and tigers also make the face as do horses, giraffes, buffalos, goats and llamas.

Cats actually have better vomeronasal organs than dogs. An average house cat has 30 different receptors in that organ, whereas a hound dog has a measly nine. (I knew we were more talented than dogs!)

Humans used to have the vomeronasal organs necessary for a flehmen response — but they got phased out in the evolutionary process (what – did compatibility and timing no longer matter?)

So, keep enjoying those cat stinky faces and take some photos and send them in to Second Chance to share the good laughs.

My name is Newby, although sadly I am no longer new to the shelter, or even the Pet Column for that matter. I have been waiting and waiting for my new home. Not sure why it is taking so long. I am handsome, only 5-years-young, have a fabulous attitude and love people. I do enjoy funny faces and promise to bring many smiles to your face if you adopt me.


Or if you want a non-flehmening pet, I would suggest Buster, a handsome Border Collie Mix. Buster is only 4-months-young and has already developed a sweet and gentle demeanor. He gets along great with other dogs, enjoys playing with his friends and he is learning to walk well on a leash.

Editor’s note: It’s no secret. The Telluride region is dog heaven. Well, pet heaven. Unless you are one of our furry friends who gets caught in the maw of neglect and abuse. Then heaven is on hold until Second Chance Humane Society comes to the rescue. Second Chance is the region’s nonprofit dedicated to saving animals’ lives and promoting responsible pet parenting and human-animal bond. In her weekly blog, executive director Kelly Goodin profiles at least one, generally two of the many animals now living at the no-kill shelter, Angel Ridge Shelter, a dog and a cat, hoping to find them loving permanent homes. The column is sponsored by Ted Hoff of Cottonwood Ranch & Kennel, who from time to time exercises his skills as a dog whisperer, partnering with Kelly and her staff to help train a particularly challenging animal.

Ted Hoff with Cabella & Wilbur

By the by, there is no better place to park your pup or get your pup (or adult dog) trained than Cottonwood whenever you head out of town (for locals) or are heading to town and staying somewhere that does not allow pets. Consider joining Ted’s Very Important Dog (VID) Club for added benies. (Details on Ted’s website.)

Second Chance Humane Society Animal Resource Center and Thrift Shop are both located in Ridgway, but service San Miguel, Ouray & Montrose Counties. Call the SCHS Helpline at 626-2273 to report a lost pet, learn about adopting a homeless pet, or about the SCHS Spay/Neuter, Volunteer, Feral Cat, or other Programs. View the shelter pets and services online:

Vetting the Vet: Dr. Michelle Dally, DVM, J.D. is Medical Director of Second Chance Humane Society. She also has a private practice, Dally Veterinary Medicine, 333 S. Elizabeth Street, Ridgway, Colorado. Her service area is  San Miguel Mesas, Placerville, Ridgway, Ouray, and Montrose. For more on Dr. Dally, go here.

Michelle & Wallowby

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