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Big Cats Like Calvin Klein Perfume

tiger perfume
Image created using Canva

I don’t know about you, but when I pass some flowers I always stick my face in them and take a deep breath. Pleasant smells are attractive, and it seems humans aren’t alone in that opinion. 

Introduction

cat catnip plant
Tabby white cat smelling a blossoming catnip plant (Nepeta nepetella). Image via Depositphotos

Have you ever seen a cat react to catnip? If not, I recommend checking this video article out (when you’re finished reading this of course). Anyway, many species of cats, including wild cats, have a peculiar behavioral response to catnip. Well, as it turns out, perfume can also elicit a response from cats – in particular Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men.

Why Do Cats Rub Stuff?

snow leopard
Snow leopard “cheek rubbing” on a branch. Eric Kilby from Somerville, MA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many feline species rub against objects to mark their territory and convey their reproductive status. In turn, other felines can inspect the scents left behind to identify territorial zones and find mating partners.

Often, in zoos, novel scents, such as perfumes, are used to enrich felines’ environments, encouraging exploratory behavior and rubbing. 

Background

lion
Lion in a tree. Ndutu Serenegti and Ngorongoro Safari 2019. Image via Depositphotos

This action of rubbing a scent is useful for biologists, as they can set up hair traps and spray them with a scent to attract wild felines, and then sample the DNA left behind to survey populations. But for this to be effective, biologists need to know what scents are the most effective in attracting wild cats to the hair traps.

The Scent Study

leopard climbing
A female African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) rests in a tree far above the ground as the morning rays bathe her colorful coat. Image via Depositphotos

A study, which was conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), published in 2005, investigated whether big cats both in captivity and in the wild would respond to various cologne and perfume scents. Specifically, the study aimed to determine if African felines would be attracted to novel scents, assessing whether they would explore unfamiliar scents or avoid them due to potential human association. Further, they wanted to assess if these scents would elicit rubbing responses, which, if successful, could be an effective technique to gather hair samples for genetic studies.

The Fragrances Used

calvin klein obsession for men
Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men. Munchkinguy at en.wikibooks, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-four fragrances were tested on felines residing in the Bronx Zoo, including Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men, Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temp, Guy Laroche’s Drakkar Noir, Paco Rabanne’s Pour Homme, and Revlon’s Ciara

Tigers in Captivity

amur siberian tiger
The Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) is unfortunately on the endangered species list. Anil Öztas, FALCC-BY-NC-4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Zoo workers had found that the Bronx Zoo’s resident Amur tigers responded well to some fragrances, particularly Obsession for Men. This observation led Patrick Thomas, General Curator of the WCS Bronx Zoo, to conduct a formal investigation into the reaction of cheetahs in the zoo to different scents.

Cheetahs in Captivity

Portrait of the fastest land animal – a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Image via Depositphotos

The researchers applied three sprays of each fragrance to objects within the cheetahs’ 1000 m² outdoor enclosure over three days. The two adult cheetahs responded to several, not all, of the scents, including Pour Homme for an average of 3 minutes, L’Air du Temps for an average of 10 minutes, and, the clear winner, Obsession for Men which kept the cats concentrating on it for an average of 11 minutes. 

The Field Test

Dusk over Phinda Reserve
Dusk over Phinda Private Game Reserve. Wee Bugger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the wild, only the four scents that were most successful with the cheetahs in captivity were tested out in the wild. The field test was conducted at the Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. And 50 hair traps were set out. The game reserve had populations of cheetahs, lions, leopards, and an assortment of herbivores.

Cheetahs in the Wild

cheetah
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) female, Phinda Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Video evidence revealed that four wild cheetahs investigated the sites with the Obsession for Men and Ciara fragrances; however, the cheetahs otherwise ignored the sites. 

Lions in the Wild

lion
Lion (Panthera leo) female, Phinda Private game Reserve, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty lions investigated several of the sites, but again, no response was elicited.

Leopards in the Wild

African Leopard
Wild African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) close up while walking in grass. Image via Depositphotos

Five leopards investigated the sites, with one even sniffing the L’Air du Temps hair trap, sneezing, and then sauntering off. This sniff and sneeze was the only behavioral response elicited by any of the big cats in the reserve. 

Why did the Wild Cats React Differently? 

cheetah
A pair of cheetahs move stealthily through the long grass of the Masai Mara in search of prey. Image via Depositphotos

It’s possible that, in the wild, big cats are surrounded with such a wide range of scents that, if they don’t associate the scent with food, they might not think it’s worth investigating. Alternatively, perhaps the scents were somewhat familiar to something they encountered often enough in their environment that they ignored it. 

Real-World Applications

Jaguar, Jaguar appearance
Jaguar (Panthera onca) scouting from a tree branch. Image by Bibake Uppal via Unsplash

In 2010, WCS set up remote cameras in various spots around the jungles of Guatemala and left out cloths treated with Obsession for Men to attract big cats to linger in front of the cameras. This was done in an effort to more accurately estimate the population numbers of jaguars. They managed to capture images of jaguars, pumas, ocelots, tapirs, peccaries, and coatis. 

What About Domestic Cats?

domestic ginger cat
A domestic ginger cat. Image by Michael Sum via Unsplash

A study published in 2022, which was primarily investigating what caused the behavioral response of domestic cats to catnip, also investigated whether domestic cats would respond similarly to big cats to fragrances. The top four fragrances of the 2003 study were used. The domestic cats showed no real reaction to most of the scents, except one cat returned to Drakkar Noir twice to rub, lick, and sit by it.  

But Why?

civet
African civet (Civettictis civetta), large viverrid native to sub-Saharan Africa. Image via Depositphotos

The chemical component civetone is speculated to be what attracts cats to these fragrances. Civetone has a musky smell, and is the scented component of the pheromone that African civets produce. In the past, civet oil used to be extracted from the perineal glands of civets, and then bottled as a fragrance. Gratefully, although still not ideal, today civetone is instead synthesized in a lab from palm oil. 

Limitations

tiger
Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). Image via Depositphotos.

One notable limitation with these studies is that the ingredients of these perfumes are kept secret by the companies that produce them. So whatever it is that is attracting these cats to investigate, is not quite yet known. Further, apparently there’s a fragrance that’s more effective than Obsession for Men in attracting big cats – but for some reason it’s a secret which one. 

Conclusion

Cat rubbing catnip (Nepeta catar) on their scratching post. Image via Depositphotos

Thanks for reading! Does your cat like any particular scent? Get involved in the conversation here. 

YouTube video
“Big Cats Wild for Calvin Klein Cologne?” Source: YouTube, Uploaded: National Geographic

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