Why does the cat smell so good when his breath smells so bad?
May 8, 2019 5:56 PM   Subscribe

I know this is a goofy question, but my housemates have been hassling me to ask, after I told them there's a place on the internet that Knows Things.

Our cat, Mew Mew, is a delightful boy. We all partake in kitty snuggles, excessive (according to him) smooches and tell him he has the rump of champions all the time. Also, his fur smells like fresh laundry. However, his cat breath is one of his lines of defense against excessive snugs. This has led my housemates to pose the question: why does the kitty smell so good when the kitty breath smell so bad?

Cat tax
posted by elsmith to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Thank you for posting your cat and his tremendous rump.

Outside of cat is dry and exposed to air. Bad-smelling bacteria thrive in wet, anaerobic conditions, such as the inside of cat’s meower.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:00 PM on May 8, 2019 [34 favorites]

Best answer: Take Mew Mew to the vet and see if he needs his teeth cleaned... cats get buildup of plaque just like we do and it smells equally bad. Vet can also rule out a few other more serious causes of bad kitty breath.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 6:01 PM on May 8, 2019 [17 favorites]

Yeah - stinky breath bummer!
I gave my Meow greenies (tm) treats as they are meant to help their stink breath... Surely there are many options beyond that brand
posted by PistachioRoux at 6:05 PM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to clarify: his teeth have been cleaned (just last week, in fact) and the vet is happy with his health. We're more pondering about the ability of Cat to contain such opposites as stinky breath and laundry-smelling fur.
posted by elsmith at 6:17 PM on May 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

A combination of what you're feeding him and possible dental/gum disease.

If cat breath smells genuinely unpleasant, and not just like sour and fishy, but notable enough that you guys are taking about it- wait until he's chill and sleepy. Scratch his head and peel back his lips If his teeth are any color other than white and pearly, he probably needs his teeth cleaned. Also check for holes or cracks.

If you typically feed him "cheap food" with a lot of fillers, like corn or soy, his mouth will smell like a rotten farm. In that case feed him something where the top several ingredients are meat-based. He'll probably lose a little weight too!

He's a really handsome cat.
posted by Bistyfrass at 6:19 PM on May 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

A male cat I had long ago often smelled faintly perfumed. It was pleasant. I’ve seen it attributed to musk glands, but I can’t find any reputable source for that right now. His littermate brother didn’t have the perfume smell.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:40 PM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

My cat is the same, but she has genetically weak teeth. My vet said that when her breath smells bad, bring her in for her teeth checkup. But your vet just gave yours a clean bill of health so... I’m not sure.

But yeah. I love the way her fur smells.
posted by greermahoney at 6:54 PM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Kitty rolls in fresh laundry but does not eat it. The fur is picking up smells from the world around it I can smell when my dog has been out in the sunshine for a while and as a woman with very long hair I pick up smells in my hair with worrying ease. The breath smells are most likely coming from his digestion, maybe try some different foods with different textures & ingredients see if it helps.
posted by wwax at 7:07 PM on May 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I understand your question perfectly but don’t have an answer. My cat’s fur smells a bit like brownie mix and fresh air (and ANGELS because she’s my ANGEL) and my cat’s breath smells like cat food/worse.

Must be her scent glands under the skin+evaporation that makes her fur smell angelic despite her use of tuna shampoo. I’d love to know the scientific answer.
posted by kapers at 7:14 PM on May 8, 2019 [11 favorites]

As a human, my breath varies depending on my water intake, the type of food i've been eating, and gut health. Probably other stuff too. My hair smells like my hair products and anything else my hair has touched recently.

That's probably not a useful answer but really I just wanted to say YOUR KITTY IS SO HANDSOME!!!
posted by bunderful at 7:21 PM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Same reason farts stink but my husband doesn't I guess
posted by masquesoporfavor at 7:21 PM on May 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

Maybe it's because there's such a contrast between the smells.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:23 PM on May 8, 2019

It's particularly funny because she grooms herself with that mouth, but one of mine is the same way. Cat saliva apparently has some pheremonal components that are quite interesting.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:23 PM on May 8, 2019 [9 favorites]

Okay, just spitballing (lol) but the saliva cats use for grooming is freshly produced, and clean. Whereas their mouths are just mouths and when they’re closed they get stinky like anyone’s would when they’re not producing as much fresh saliva.
posted by kapers at 7:25 PM on May 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

My cats also smell great despite their breath stinking like low tide at a scary beach. I will say the one who only has his canine teeth left has much pleasanter breath than the other two, presumably because there are fewer nooks and crannies for critters to stick in.

You may be interested in this article.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 7:56 PM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I mean, health concerns aside as a general rule the outside of living things smells better than the inside of them.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 8:17 PM on May 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Cats are weird. My boy smells like delicious baked goods on the outside, but his breath smells like a latrine pit. Vet says it's because he's got FIV and is therefore susceptible to poor dental health. Mostly I just wanted to answer so I could tell you how magnificently handsome Mew Mew is.
posted by spinturtle at 9:17 PM on May 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

My cats fur smells like “laundry” or some kind of home perfume when I get the litter from Costco, because it’s scented. When I get unscented litter, he smells neutral/good. His breath usually smells fine, he gets greenies but also very high quality food. When I get him fancy feast or something as a treat or when I’m out of anything else, his breath is FOUL.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 9:27 PM on May 8, 2019

his breath smells terrible because his butthole is extremely clean. congratulate him on his clean butthole! he has been cleaning it all day long just waiting for someone to notice.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:13 PM on May 8, 2019 [39 favorites]

Everything I can google about "cat odours" talks about what owners can to to tolerate, remove or mitigate various pongs. But bear in mind that cats have their own take on this too - and their own behavioural and evolutionally tendencies. Cats are carnivorous stealth hunters who were domesticated only about 10,0000 years ago and - with proper exposure at the right age - they are still capable of getting their own food and surviving in the wild. They also depend on scent for social purposes: to give other cats information about themselves and to know about those other cats in turn. To these ends, they use their sense of smell as second only to their sight in hunting. They have an olfactory bulb which is about twice as large as ours with 200 million scent receptors (humans have 5 million). They also have a separate structure ,called Jacobson's organ, in their mouths - which allows them to detect low levels of pheromones used a social signalling system. Finally, they can modify their breathing - with something called the Flehmen Response - so as to actively sniff the air taking in even more information. So there is absolutely no question of your cat being unable to smell anything that you can.

And the same applies for other non human animals who will be smelling your cat. Your cat has a tendency to make itself smell good - i.e. healthy and not inoffensive - to other cats. Who are more discerning of such things than you. They also need to not smell obvious to their potential prey. To these ends: hours of grooming - and an extreme dislike of baths that can disrupt the way they smell to others.

So the cat can smell as clean as sweet smelling laundry to you - which equates to "I am a healthy cat - now check my pheromones!" to other felines - and, with luck, to "what smell?" to a mouse. But it does all this without opening its mouth, and when it does ... the rules change. At that point their breath can smell of what they have eaten - which may not be so great to smell to you. However it should not smell of anything awful as a routine. If it does - apart from dental problems - it can also be a sign of kidney or liver problems, stomatitus (inflammation of the mouth of gums) or of infection by ear mites (smell the ears separately from the mouth).
posted by rongorongo at 11:14 PM on May 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

My cat Gimlet is also in this club. His long fluffy fur smells like clean laundry, but even better than my actual laundry. His noggin tends to smell like my perfume, presumably from rubbing on my neck all the time. His mouth smells like low tide at the firey lakes of hell. My other cat Pimm, who has short hair and is super glossy, also has fishy napalm breath, but his fur doesn't seem to smell like much in particular. They eat the same food and both spend 12 hours a day spreading their herring saliva all over their fur.

I've wondered if their very different fur textures has something to do with it. The only other difference I can think of is that Gimlet is in general much cuddlier, so he has more human skin contact.

P.S. Mew Mew is excellent.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:56 PM on May 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am wondering if there isn't some truth to "smelly cat, smelly cat, what are they feeding you; smelly cat, smelly cat, it's not your fault", after all. Some cat food smells pretty – what was the word upthread? – "interesting," to say the very least.
One wonders whether mice or birds (bones, fur, feathers, liver and all), might not be more catbreath-smell-balancing than what comes out of a can or a bag. No scientific answer either I fear...
posted by Namlit at 5:35 AM on May 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say my cat's breath smells conventionally good- but I LOOOOVE the smell of it. It's like the mix of old dry turkey, the back-side of a leather watchstrap, and maybe a whiff of toe beans.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:43 AM on May 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

My orange cat's fur smells like vanilla and aluminum and of all my love, and I can tell when he's been licking his brother because then HIS head smells like vanilluminum too, but that orange cat has TERRIBLE breath, like if a live feathered turkey was trapped in a burning hell.

If he meows in your face it is STUNNING.

So i'm just repeating things I've heard here because I'm trying to do some light googling and coming up empty, but I've heard that cats saliva has enzymes that help dispel odors. In case they get injured, other predators won't be able to track them by their scent as they lick their wounds, and prey won't be able to scent them as they sneak up on them (I feel like maybe I learned this at the zoo.)

so maybe their breath is stinky because like, their mouths are stinky and they never brush their own teeth and just bite me when I try, but their fur smells like baby angels because they're a organic febreze machine?
posted by euphoria066 at 2:55 PM on May 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

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