Cat communicating and signalling

Domestic cats, like many other mammals, use smelly secretions from anal sacs to mark territory and communicate with other animals. Dr. David Coil, project scientist at the Genome Center and lead researcher on a new study of the topic says, “Cats use a lot of volatile chemicals for signaling, and they probably don’t make them all.”  His new study shows that many odiferous compounds from a male cat are actually made not by the cat, but by a community of bacteria living in the anal sacs. (source)

Study overview

The researchers obtained anal sac secretions from a single male Bengal cat volunteered to participate by its owner. They extracted DNA for sequencing to identify types of bacteria, and also took samples for chemical odor analysis.  Sequencing showed that the microbial community was not very diverse and dominated by a small number of bacterial genera.  The most abundant bacteria from the screen were grown in culture.

Researchers were then able to detect 67 volatile compounds released by the bacterial cultures. Fifty-two of these compounds were also found directly in the anal sac secretions.

The results support the idea that the bacterial community, not the cat itself, produces many of the scents used by the cat to communicate.

Future work

Now that we know this about cat secretions, what does that tell us about animal communications?  If these scents are made by bacteria, why do cats smell different to each other? How do cats acquire the bacteria and do they change over life? Understanding how microbes influence their scent could have wide implications for understanding scent communication in animals.


Journal Reference: Mei S. Yamaguchi, Holly H. Ganz, Adrienne W. Cho, Thant H. Zaw, Guillaume Jospin, Mitchell M. McCartney, Cristina E. Davis, Jonathan A. Eisen, David A. Coil. Bacteria isolated from Bengal cat (Felis catus × Prionailurus bengalensis) anal sac secretions produce volatile compounds potentially associated with animal signaling. PLOS ONE, 2019; 14 (9): e0216846 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216846