By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 5 September 2010)
After watching their cats go wild over seemingly innocuous items such as shoes or wet swimsuits, many owners wonder if their pets are normal. Such behaviours are actually quite common, and although experts don’t know for sure why cats have these intense attractions, the most plausible theory is that they are drawn to pheromones and substances that mimic them.
Why Does My Cat Love Shoes, Socks, or Bare Feet?
Some cats love to chew, suck, or rub their faces all over shoes, socks, or feet. Chewing on shoes or socks may be a variant of the fabric sucking behaviour often seen in cats that have been weaned too early. However, many cats simply find the smell of shoes, dirty socks, and feet appealing. Theories put forth to explain the feline foot obsession include the following:
- A beloved owner’s scent is highly concentrated on his feet, and by extension, his shoes and socks, and this scent has a comforting effect on the cat.
- Cats may like the taste of the salt in sweaty footwear.
- Shoes and bare feet capture scents from the ground they walk over, and so owners bring home a variety of interesting smells that tell the cat where they’ve been and what they’ve encountered along the way.
- Cats have scent glands in their cheeks, and they rub their faces on shoes and socks to cover scents that have been acquired during outdoor excursions, thus re-staking their claim to these objects.
- Cats react to human pheromones in sweat much in the way they react to catnip (which has an ingredient that mimics feline pheromones).
It’s likely that several of these factors play a role, though pheromones may be a particularly strong draw, especially for cats that behave as though they have consumed catnip when in the presence of shoes, socks, or feet. According to Kohl et al. (2001), although pheromones are primarily associated with the apocrine glands found on areas of the body such as the armpits and genitals, moist body parts like the mouth and feet are also sites of pheromone production.
Why Do Cats Go Crazy for Catnip and Valerian?
Catnip contains a compound called nepetalactone that is believed to attract cats by mimicking cat sex pheremones. This theory is supported by the fact that kittens don’t respond to catnip at all and males tend to respond more strongly than females, though 20%-30% of cats lack the ability to respond at all.
Because catnip is a member of the mint family, some cats are also attracted to mint plants. Catnip and fresh mint leaves are not harmful to cats, though certain essential oils, including peppermint oil, are toxic to them.
Valerian, another cat-attractant and intoxicant, has a stimulating effect due to a substance called actinidine, which induces similar reactions to nepetalactone. Cats get excited and sometimes even a little aggressive under its influence. Fresh-growing valerian isn’t harmful to cats, though some highly-concentrated medications containing it may not be safe.
Why Does My Cat Love Chlorine?
Some cats react to chlorine much in the same way they do to catnip. These cats chew on an owner’s hair or towel after he’s been to the pool, or try to lick surfaces that have been recently cleaned with bleach or other cleaning products that contain it. The most likely reason for this attraction is that the smell of chlorine is perceived as similar to certain constituents in cat urine.
Catnip and valerian exert their effects by mimicking cat sex pheromones, and chlorine may produce a similar effect in some cats. However, unlike catnip and valerian, which are safe for cats, chlorine is toxic, so it’s important to prevent cats from consuming it. If your cat has a chlorine obsession, shower well with soap after swimming, put your swimsuit and towel somewhere inaccessible until they can be washed, and close the doors to any room where you are using bleach to clean surfaces.
Because some cats may perceive bleach or ammonia as the urine of other cats, cleaning areas cats have sprayed or urinated with chlorine- or ammonia-based cleaners can backfire, causing the cat to keep targeting the same spot. Cat urine should be cleaned with an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature’s Miracle to remove all traces. Otherwise, the cat may believe that another cat has urinated there. This will compel him to re-stake his claim to the spot by spraying or urinating over the scent mark of his rival.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons why they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- ASPCA. (2010). “Peppermint Oil.” ASPCA.org.
- Feline Advisory Bureau. (n.d.). “The Cat Friendly Home.” FABCats.org.
- Kohl, J.V., Atzmueller, M., Fink, B., & Grammer, K. (2001). “ Integrating Neuroendocrinology and Ethology.” Neuroendocrinology Letters, 22(5). NEL.edu.
- Scientific American. (29 May 2007). “How Does Catnip Work Its Magic on Cats?” ScientificAmerican.com.