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Are you my mummy? Long-term olfactory memory of mother’s body odour by offspring in the domestic cat

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Longevity of odour memories, particularly those acquired during early development, has been documented in a wide range of taxa. Here, we report that kittens of the domestic cat retained a memory into adult life of their mother´s body odour experienced before weaning. Kittens from 15 litters were tested when permanently separated from their mother at weaning on postnatal week 8, and tested again when 4 and 6 months and over 1 year of age. When presented with a simultaneous three-way choice between body odour of their own mother, of an unknown female of similar reproductive condition and a blank stimulus, weaning-age kittens sniffed the cotton swab with the odour of an unknown female longer. This preference, however, changed when as adults the subjects sniffed the cotton swab with their own mother’s odour longer. We conclude that kittens form a long-lasting memory of the body odour of their mother, and by implication, that mothers retain an individual odour signature sufficiently stable across age and changes in their reproductive state to be distinguishable by their adult offspring. What this means in functional or cognitive terms is not yet clear. Does such “recognition” have a specific biological function and a specific cognitive representation? Or is it rather part of a more general phenomenon well known in (human) olfaction of odours that are familiar generally being judged more pleasant, and that might then influence olfactory-guided behaviour in a variety of contexts?

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Financial support was provided by the Dirección General de Asuntos del Personal Académico, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (grant DGAPA-IN213120), and by a Cátedra grant to P. S. from the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, Mexico (grant 691). A. U. received a fellowship from CONACYT (number 616266), and thanks the Posgrado en Ciencias Biológicas, Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México for its support. We thank undergraduate student Sandra Martínez-Byer for help with cat management, Carolina Rojas for administrative assistance, and Royal Canin® for generous support of our research. We also thank 49 cat owners for allowing us access to their homes and pets.

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Correspondence to Robyn Hudson or Oxána Bánszegi.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted. Throughout the study, animals were kept and treated according to the Guide for the Production, Care and Use of Laboratory Animals in Mexico (Norma Oficial Mexicana NOM-062-200-1999).

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Szenczi, P., Urrutia, A., Hudson, R. et al. Are you my mummy? Long-term olfactory memory of mother’s body odour by offspring in the domestic cat. Anim Cogn 25, 21–26 (2022).

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