I thought there was something moldy or mildewy in my office at work - it was a pungent odor that would mysteriously come and go. Just when I was ready to start fumigating the place (or dousing everything I could in bleach) the smell would vanish. It was an enigma. I smelled it on Dave, my husband's clothes, when he arrived home from work after me, but I didn't smell it on mine because, I assumed, I was assimilated to it. Was there something wrong with our clothes washer? No, other clothes smelled just fine.
It took some time for me to recognize that the source of this powerful, nasty odor was NOT, in fact, at the office or at home. It was emanating from our CAR! Dave spritzed the whole interior with Febreeze, which simply transformed the smell into perfumed mildew, and made it even more sickening to experience (at least in my opinion.) He assumed the problem was some sort of leak in the trunk that had allowed water to enter, and after a time, allowing mold or mildew to form. It was invisible, but would cling to a person and anything else it could get its tendrils on, and not let go.
So, the day I drove the car to work (my husband normally drove it) and I was forced to make the 15 minute trek with all the windows down, followed by three separate staff members complaining loudly about how gross I smelled when I arrived - I knew it was time to say goodbye to an old friend. No, not Dave. The car. That vehicle gave us 13 years of faithful service, and was still running fine. It was sad, really - we figured we'd be sending our son off to college with it in a few years. Funny how plans change. All because of a bad smell.
The sense of smell, called "olfaction," is a primal, rudimentary function of life that helps all animals in more ways than we dull humans may realize. The olfactory center is considered one of the most primitive areas of the brain, and is present in all vertebrates. And yes, while smelling the musk or perfume or even pheromones of a member of the opposite sex is certainly part of survival, a sense of smell has a much more varied and vital role to play than just meeting and greeting potential mates.
For instance, what's the most assured way to choose between fresh foods and those that are spoiled or tainted? Put it this way: does 2-week-old lunchmeat still look like lunchmeat? Usually. Ah, but how does it smell? If you get whiplash from doing the sniff test, it's pretty much a no-brainer - either toss it or risk tossing your cookies (so to speak) later. Never mind dogs' tendency to eat spoiled food - they are opportunists and tend to take their chances. In many cases, they seem to come out no worse for wear (which may not be the case for the owner's living room rug.)
Cats (and other non-scavengers) would sooner starve than ingest anything that smells remotely rancid. This is not necessarily because cats are smarter than dogs - they are just different, and much more particular about what they eat. They have a different metabolism and have very different nutritional needs, being obligate carnivores, they require fresh meat.
When I was in veterinary school, our class underwent an experiment. We were instructed to hold our noses while an assistant passed around dixie cups containing a clear liquid we were told was safe to drink.
We were not told what it was, but were asked to drink it while still holding our noses, and not to open our noses until the signal was given to do so. Because we were more curious than suspicious of any foul play, we did it without question (although a few giggles emanated from the more nervous of the group.) We drank.
We did not grow 10 feet tall, nor did we shrink, and I do not recall conversing with any caterpillars on toadstools. We were pretty sure we weren't poisoned, as without us, the school would be out a lot of tuition money. We were asked what it tasted like. It tasted like...water. Not very exciting, just cool and wet.
Then, the signal was given to open our noses and - POW! Lemon! It was an amazing sensation, because it had been such a deliberate and simplistic way of demonstrating how crucial our sense of smell is in tasting our food.
When animals are sick, particularly when they have nasal congestion, they tend to have poor appetites. Is it any wonder? Relieving congestion, warming the foods, offering foods with strong aromas, and placing some food directly into anorexic animals' mouths are all ways of jump-starting their appetites when their sniffers are on the fritz.
But a keen sense of smell aids in other ways. All animals tend to avoid unpleasant smells like the acrid odor of smoke or the caustic, metallic odor of certain chemicals that can signify danger. That's pretty obvious. Less evident to us, but very prevalent amongst animals is the ability to smell fear. Oh, yes they can!
Just the other day, my first patient of the day was a truly terrified dog. It took three people to settle him down just to complete his physical exam. While it was quite a workout, we and the dog emerged from the room a bit ruffled, but otherwise unscathed.
However, every patient I saw for the remainder of the morning was on-edge, and a few had backed themselves into a corner before I even entered the room. I knew not to take it personally - the techs and I had fear pheromones all over us, and we knew it.
My own dogs greeted me at home with much more interest than usual, and spent an inordinate amount of time taking in the various new (undetectable to me) odors I had accumulated on my clothes throughout the stressful day.
Smells have great power over us - they can influence our moods, our appetites, and even transport us to another time or place (through our memories, of course.) The smell of the ocean, a pumpkin pie baking, or the combination of farm animal smells and fried foods at the summer fair - odors are carved into our psyche, sometimes causing physiologic reactions whether we want it, or not.
These days, as I drive down the road and drink in the new car smell, I can feel the stress hormones ebbing away and the endorphins kicking in - temporary, but therapeutic while it lasts.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.