Can Dogs Smell Better Than Cats?

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Introduction

Dogs or cats — which species makes the better pet? Ask a dog owner this question and they'll tell you it's not even a competition. Dogs win every single time by a country mile.

But when it comes to the question of who can smell better, dogs or cats, the answer isn't quite as clear-cut. Dogs are famous for their amazing sense of smell, and it's safe to say that the canine breeds with the strongest snouts can smell better than the average cat. 

However, because nose power varies quite substantially between dog breeds, cats can actually smell better than some dogs. Let's take a closer look at why dogs are such great sniffers and how their sniffing skills stack up against those of their feline counterparts.

The Signs of Sniffing

Have you ever experienced the frustration of watching your dog prioritize following an interesting scent above all else? One minute, your pooch could be happily playing with you and doing whatever they're told, but all of a sudden they're off, nose to the ground and with every fiber of their being focused on following that interesting scent. You tell them to stop and return to your side, but your pleas fall on deaf ears.

With their immensely powerful sense of smell, dogs are much, much better than us at detecting and identifying odors. The signs of a dog picking up a scent are usually pretty clear, and the first clue you might notice is that your dog all of a sudden starts ignoring you. Instead of doing what they're told, they thrust their nose to the ground or high in the air, turning their head this way and that as they work to locate the source of the scent.

Inhaling and exhaling rapidly, they may not return their full attention to you until they're completely satisfied about what the smell is and where it's coming from. Some breeds, such as the Basset Hound, even have ears that are specially designed to "sweep" smells up off the ground and into their nostrils, providing them with an even higher level of sniffing capability.

Body Language

Take a closer look at your dog's body language when they're tracking a smell. You might notice:
  • Alert
  • Wag tail
  • Sniffing
  • Head turning
  • Twitching whiskers
  • Stalking
  • Ears up

Other Signs

Other signs your dog is smelling something include:
  • Rapidly inhaling and exhaling
  • Turning their head to follow scent
  • Ignoring your commands
  • Nose in the air or lowered to the ground

The History of Dogs' and Cat's Sense of Smell

Putting aside for a second the question of whether dogs can smell better than cats, it's worth acknowledging that both species have much stronger noses than humans. Dogs, for instance, are known to have a sense of smell that's at least 10,000 times stronger than our own, and possibly much more.

So, why are dogs and cats such strong sniffers? Throughout history, a powerful sense of smell would have been a crucial weapon for the wild ancestors of our modern-day domesticated pets. In order to survive in the wild, being able to sniff out their next meal and detect signs of danger before they got too close were essential.

Both species use their sense of smell to interact with and understand their environment. For example, dogs instinctively use their noses to detect the scent of other dogs in the area and mark their territory.

Over the past few centuries, we've also specifically bred some of our canine companions to have maximum sniffing power. With many breeds developed to perform crucial roles when hunting alongside us, their sense of smell would have been vital to their ability to detect and track game. Thanks to our selective breeding practices, some dogs (such as the Bloodhound) are supercharged sniffers with much more sniffing power than other breeds, but every dog can easily out-sniff a human.

Science Behind Who Smells Better

The human nose is home to roughly 5 million olfactory receptors, which are proteins that allow us to detect odors. The average cat has around 200 million smell receptors in their nostrils, making them far superior sniffers to us.

But what about dogs? Well, it depends on the breed. Top-level sniffers have more receptors than cats. For example, Bloodhounds have a whopping 300 million olfactory receptors while German Shepherds and Beagles tip the scales at around 225 million. However, dogs with flat faces and short noses simply don't have as much space for these receptors, so there's plenty of variation between breeds. As two more examples, the Dachshund is thought to have around 125 million smell receptor cells and a Fox terrier only 147 million — less than your average cat.

But if cats are such impressive sniffers, why don't you ever see "police cats" sniffing out drugs and other illict substances at the airport? A 2017 study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, suggests that cats actually have a better ability than dogs to discriminate between a greater variety of smells. In the future, this may even lead to felines being trained to sniff out drugs, bombs, and specific medical scents.

Scent Training for Dogs

Regardless of whether or not your dog can smell better than the cat next door, your pooch certainly doesn't need to feel inadequate about the size of their sniffing power. As an owner, there's also plenty you can do to help your dog harness and improve their strongest scent.

There are stacks of easy and fun scent games you can play with your pet at home. For example, why not try hiding treats around the home for your dog to discover? Start out with easy hiding places and, as your dog gets the hang of the game, graduate to more advanced hiding spots.

Next, you could try playing a game of hide and seek where you effectively become the treat. While your dog is distracted, hide somewhere in your home and then sit back and wait for your pet to inevitably come searching for you. Remember to reward them with a treat and plenty of praise for tracking you down.

There's no limit to the options and variations available. Just remember to keep the games fun and challenging to prevent boredom setting in, and to enjoy these games as a grrr-eat excuse to spend some quality time with your furry friend.

Safety Tips For Dogs Who Love Sniffing:

  • Play it safe. Your dog's sense of smell is a very useful tool but also one that can get them into trouble. Take some simple precautions to help them avoid danger.
  • Secure your yard. Make sure your yard is securely fenced and that your dog can't escape to follow a scent.
  • Be careful near busy roads. A dog following a scent can ignore everything going on around them, so exercise caution near busy roads or other potential hazards.
  • Don't forget your leash. This can stop your dog wandering into any trouble while following a scent.