Cats rule the world with the help of chemistry

Cats have a sense of smell that is about 14 times more acute than a human’s.

Original photo [Depositphotos]

Cats' ol­fac­tion al­lows them to de­tect smells that peo­ple do not even sus­pect. And their noses are par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to their own aro­mat­ic mark­ings. To leave mark­ings, cats pro­duce fe­li­n­ine. This amino acid is present in the an­i­mals’ urine, and cats spray it on var­i­ous sur­faces, wher­ev­er they think it nec­es­sary,


What's the smell?

In it­self, fe­li­n­ine does not smell. But when it breaks down, it forms a volatile com­pound – 3-mer­cap­to-3-methylbu­tane-1-ol. It is a thi­ol – sul­fu­ric equiv­a­lents of al­co­hol, with the SH group in­stead of the OH group. The low­er thi­ols are high­ly volatile liq­uids with a re­volt­ing smell. Hu­mans can smell them in very low con­cen­tra­tions in the air – less than one part per 100 mil­lion. So, for ex­am­ple, thi­ol is added to cook­ing gas, which has no smell, so that leaks can be de­tect­ed. And this is why the smell of cat urine is so ob­tru­sive.

Perhaps, the most innocent cat's marking [Unsplash]

Cats may mark cor­ners, fur­ni­ture and footwear for var­i­ous rea­sons. And al­though they nev­er do this out of spite (or al­most nev­er), this al­ways caus­es prob­lems for their own­ers. A thi­ol can be sim­ply ox­i­dized – with hy­dro­gen per­ox­ide or potas­si­um per­man­ganate. The thi­ol group (—SH) ox­i­dizes into the sul­fon­ic group (—SO3H), while thi­ol be­comes a non-volatile acid and no longer smells. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, not ev­ery item marked by a cat can with­stand these or­deals. Ad­di­tion­al­ly, even af­ter dam­aged items are treat­ed with an ox­i­diz­er, fe­li­n­ine may still re­main on them. And as it breaks down, it will con­tin­ue to re­lease smelly thi­ol for a long time.

And if in our case cats may only ruin our sneak­ers, rugs, so­fas and peace of mind, for mice this smell is a mat­ter of life and death.

The mouse is in trouble [Depositphotos]

Fe­li­n­ine, for ex­am­ple, caus­es mis­car­riages in preg­nant mice. When mice de­tect 3-mer­cap­to-3-methylbu­tane-1-ol, their lev­el of stress hor­mones in­creas­es. As a re­sult, the mouse ex­pe­ri­ences pan­ic and tries to hide.

But in the course of evo­lu­tion, mice also de­vel­oped an­oth­er mech­a­nism, which al­lows them to live along­side peo­ple and their food al­most with­out fear. If a mouse has been sur­round­ed by cats’ mark­ings from an ear­ly age, in adult life it will run away less of­ten when it de­tects them. The lev­el of stress hor­mones pro­voked by the smell of a cat is high­er among these mice than among or­di­nary mice.

A cat and a mouse [Depositphotos]

The sub­tleties of this phe­nom­e­non have not been ful­ly stud­ied, but it is clear that a dif­fi­cult child­hood af­fects the sub­se­quent life of the mouse. Ev­i­dent­ly, this is how cats keep the num­ber of mice around them at the nec­es­sary lev­el for them. Or per­haps mice are just their first step to tak­ing over the world.

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