Are you my mummy? Long-term olfactory memory of mother's body odour by offspring in the domestic cat

Anim Cogn. 2022 Feb;25(1):21-26. doi: 10.1007/s10071-021-01537-w. Epub 2021 Jul 26.


Longevity of odour memories, particularly those acquired during early development, has been documented in a wide range of taxa. Here, we report that kittens of the domestic cat retained a memory into adult life of their mother´s body odour experienced before weaning. Kittens from 15 litters were tested when permanently separated from their mother at weaning on postnatal week 8, and tested again when 4 and 6 months and over 1 year of age. When presented with a simultaneous three-way choice between body odour of their own mother, of an unknown female of similar reproductive condition and a blank stimulus, weaning-age kittens sniffed the cotton swab with the odour of an unknown female longer. This preference, however, changed when as adults the subjects sniffed the cotton swab with their own mother's odour longer. We conclude that kittens form a long-lasting memory of the body odour of their mother, and by implication, that mothers retain an individual odour signature sufficiently stable across age and changes in their reproductive state to be distinguishable by their adult offspring. What this means in functional or cognitive terms is not yet clear. Does such "recognition" have a specific biological function and a specific cognitive representation? Or is it rather part of a more general phenomenon well known in (human) olfaction of odours that are familiar generally being judged more pleasant, and that might then influence olfactory-guided behaviour in a variety of contexts?

Keywords: Familiarity; Felis silvestris catus; Individual recognition; Long-term olfactory memory; Odour discrimination; Olfactory recognition.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Odor
  • Cats
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mothers
  • Odorants
  • Smell*