The Flehmen Response in Domestic Cats
Have you ever seen your cat make an odd expression akin to a grimace or sneer? It’s hard to miss when it happens. The nose wrinkles, the upper lip draws back, and their mouth opens and remains slightly ajar for a short time.
Contrary to its appearance, this comical face is not your kitty expressing disgust. It is a biological behavior known as the flehmen response.
Derived from the German verb “flehmen,” roughly meaning “to curl the lip,” the response functions as a way for cats to gather additional sensory information.
This behavior isn’t limited to domestic cats. Felids of all kinds exhibit the response, as well as many other animals: horses, giraffes, goats, buffalo, sheep, and deer, to name just a few.
When a cat exhibits the flehmen response, they are not recoiling from an odor, but rather, investigating it further. So how does this physiological mechanism work, and what purposes does it serve?
Anatomy of the Flehmen Response
The flehmen response is made possible by a specialized sensory structure called the vomeronasal organ, or Jacobson’s organ.
The vomeronasal organ consists of two fluid-filled sacs located in the roof of the mouth. The nasopalatine canal—two small ducts situated just behind the front teeth—connect these sacs to the nasal cavity, forming a passageway for scents.
The rather silly-looking gape cats adopt during the response is what allows them to draw odors into the mouth rather than the nose. The vomeronasal organ then analyzes the scent, transmitting information to the cat’s brain.
In the context of senses, the flehmen response is difficult for us as humans to describe since we lack the structures necessary to experience it. However, it is believed that the process is something akin to a hybrid between smell and taste.
But enough about the mechanics of the response—why do cats actually do it?
Functions of the Flehmen Response
In cats, the flehmen response is most commonly used in the detection and inspection of pheromones—chemicals animals use to communicate among their own species. Cats typically distribute pheromones in the form of urine marking or face rubbing.
On average, male cats utilize the response more frequently than females do, usually for mating purposes. Pheromones are particularly valuable for breeding, providing details on a cat’s sex, age, location, and reproductive status. By engaging in the response, a tomcat can ascertain whether or not a female is in estrus (heat) and thus in an ideal condition for mating. Female cats sometimes use the flehmen response when familiarizing themselves with the scent of their newborn kittens.
The response isn’t solely used in relation to pheromones, though. Any odor a cat finds interesting, unfamiliar, or novel can prompt the behavior. This varies with each individual cat and ranges from plants (especially catnip) to food to household objects.
In the video below, an electric toothbrush elicits the response from a curious Abyssinian cat.
The intense reaction catnip incites in many felines comes from the plant’s active ingredient, nepetalactone. One study suggests that nepetalactone simulates pheromones, which would explain why so many cats show the response around it.
This is where the details get murky. The link between the flehmen response and pheromones is relatively straightforward, but we're not sure why exactly cats perform the response around so many miscellaneous objects—such as the electric toothbrush seen above. Research on the behavior is still ongoing.
For now, though, we can at least appreciate this fascinating biological phenomenon and enjoy the ridiculous facial expressions it produces.
© 2018 Allison Golden