How Your Cat Communicates Using Butt Microbes

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If you’ve encountered one of the nearly 100 million cats in the U.S., you know that cats regularly show us their butt. Why? It’s thought to be a sign of affection. Cats, much like dogs, do sniff each other’s butts for an update on another individual’s identity, health and more.

New research shows that cats may harbor a community of bacterial in their anal sacs to generate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can travel through the air and serve as a signal. Other cats can smell these compounds. Your cat assumes you can do the same.

Scientists from the University of California, Davis wanted to test the fermentation hypothesis, which describes symbiotic microorganisms living symbiotically with animals that create odor profiles which are used for communication by the animal. Changes in the chemical signals, or VOCs, are driven by changes in the composition of the microbiome.

A chemical signal needed in mouse reproduction requires a bacterial partner to produce. Since anal glands are common across many mammal species, cats could also depend on certain bacteria to generate chemicals used in signaling.

To test the fermentation hypothesis, the scientists characterized the microbiome and the VOC profile of one lucky male bengal cat’s anal sacs. They used next-generation sequencing to identify most of the bacterial species present and mass spectrometry to identify various VOCs produced.

The researchers also grew some of the bacterial species of interest and tested the chemicals produced. They found that across 67 VOCs identified from the bacteria, 51 were also found in anal sac secretions, meaning that the bacteria of interest were likely the main producers of scent used as communication.

Some of the compounds identified in both the anal sac and cultured bacteria, such as aromatic alcohols, can only be generated in microorganisms and plants. Together these findings support the fermentation hypothesis, though to what degree the anal sac exists to house bacteria for signaling is still unknown.

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