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This week's column:
Why does my cat have the hots for my husband's dirty clothes?

Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas:

My 11-year-old kitty Chicago has started displaying a new behavior over the past year. When my husband takes his clothes off to go to bed, Chicago seeks out his dirty undershirts and rolls around in them. She starts acting like I've just given her catnip. She gets all playful and pouncy and starts rubbing up against everything. Why would a human scent affect her like this, and is it unusual? Is she trying to steal my hubby from me? She is such a silly kitty. Any insight from the Paws and Effect family would be appreciated.

-- Mandy

Sinéad: We can see why you'd be stumped by Chicago's odd behavior, Mandy. But we think we might be able to give you some insight.

Siouxsie: As you probably know, scent is very important to cats. Our sense of smell is thousands of times stronger than humans', and one of the reasons our sniffers are so good is because cats communicate by way of pheromones.

Thomas: Pheromones are chemical smells produced by the body that signal different states of health and sexual readiness.

Sinéad: But there are some other non-pheromone smells that make us cats all giddy and crazy, including catnip. Actually, only about half of cats have the "classic catnip reaction," and the rest could take it or leave it. Baby kittens don't react to catnip at all, and it's only when we reach adolescence that you'll really be able to tell whether you have a catnip-loving cat or not.

Siouxsie: There are a few other plant smells that make cats get happy, too. Lavender, for example, has a catnip-like effect on big cats such as lions. We think some domestic cats may enjoy the fragrance of lavender, too. We've heard rumors that valerian may have a drug-like effect on cats -- it's a well-known herbal sleep aid and sedative for humans. Mama says valerian smells like dirty gym socks!

Thomas: So, it could be that your husband is releasing pheromones that are making Chicago get all happy and giddy. Or it could be that some hygiene product he uses (a deodorant, after-shave or cologne, for example) may be inducing the "catnip reaction" in Chicago.

Sinéad: Does Chicago try to nuzzle your husband before he gets undressed? If so, does she go for any particular area of his body, like his armpits or his neck? This might give you a clue about the product that's getting Chicago all giddy.

JaneA: While the cats are having some dinner, let me tell you a little secret. Recently I started using a new deodorant that has real lavender oil in it, and Siouxsie really digs it! Whenever she's in my lap, she's constantly trying to sniff my armpits.

Siouxsie: I heard that!

Thomas: Hey, Siouxsie. You gonna eat the rest of that chicken?

Siouxsie: Stay away from my food, you little bandit, or I'll cuff you across the room! With my claws out!

Thomas: Mama!

Sinéad: In any case, Mandy, it's not unusual for cats to enjoy their humans' dirty laundry. Most of us limit our laundry activities to sleeping in baskets full of clothes that need washing -- this is one of my favorite things to do. The reason for this is that your dirty laundry smells like you. When our humans aren't home, some especially people-oriented cats use objects that smell like their humans to reduce their anxiety about being alone.

Siouxsie: What Sinéad is saying is that some cats are wimps and need to sleep in their humans' laundry because they're scaredy cats!

Sinéad: Hey, I've seen you napping in Mama's laundry basket plenty of times, so don't even go there!

Siouxsie: I was just filling the laundry with my scent! After all, I am Top Cat, and my scent should be everywhere!

Sinéad: Ha ha, don't make me laugh ...

Thomas: In any case, it's really quite normal for cats to use a soft bed that gives us the comfort of closeness to our humans. And a basket full of dirty clothes is just perfect for that task!

Sinéad: Chicago's reaction is certainly on the extreme end of the continuum, so we do think it has something to do with the smell of a product your husband is using. You could test this semi-scientifically by putting samples of the hygiene products he uses on scraps of cloth (one sample per scrap) to see if there's any one particular product Chicago reacts to in a similar manner.

Siouxsie: On the other hand, it could just be that Chicago loves your husband so much that she just has to roll in his clothes to get covered with the smell of him. We don't think she's trying to steal him from you (hee hee hee), but cats have been known to have odd "crushes" on people before.

Thomas: If Chicago's behavior isn't annoying or troubling you, you can probably just enjoy it as one of her endearing quirks. As long as she doesn't actually start eating his shirts, you don't have to worry about her health, and provided that she doesn't have Toxic Drool of Doom that discolors his clothes, it's really no big deal.

Sinéad: In fact, I think Chicago's behavior is kind of sweet.

Siouxsie: You would.

Thomas: Oh, Siouxsie, quit being such a meanie.

Siouxsie: Shut your tuna hole, stripy man, or you're gonna get it!

Sinéad: If you do find out that Chicago is attracted to something your husband uses to make his body smell nice, please let us know. We're always interested in finding out more about such things. And maybe Mama will buy some of it too, so we can roll all over her clothes!

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.