The smell of cat piss = lying?

There’s an episode of “Deadwood” where a guy is lying to the boss. The boss says (paraphrasing), “I gotta open a window. The smell of cat piss is filling my nostrils.”

However, the guy was also a dope fiend, so it might be related to that.

It was widely reported when the show started that the creator, David Milch, did a lot of research into the language of the time.

A cursory google search turned up nada.

The Straight Dope on “cat piss”?

Not everything in life is literal. All the boss is saying is that he knows the guy is lying. It is being done in a colorful way for dramatic effect.

When you say a movie stinks, exactly what smell does it give off? It’s the same thing.

Actually, there may be more truth to this than is initially apparent. The smell of urine wouldn’t suggest that a person was lying, of course. But it may suggest that the person was a dope fiend, which might in turn make it clear that the person was lying about something specific, or that they were generally untrustworthy.

The smell of cat urine is apparently mostly the smell of urea, with perhaps traces of ammonia. Ammonia does not occur in large amounts of urine, but the breakdown of other compounds in urine might cause traces of ammonia. (Ammonia can be detected in very small concentrations, so a trace is all it would take.) The key difference between human and cat urine is that the primary nitrogen-containing compound in cat urine is urea. Human urine contains urea as the product of protein metabolism and uric acid as the product of nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) metabolism.

The nitrogen-containing compounds in urine – urea in cat urine, urea and uric acid in human urine – are byproducts of protein metabolism. When an amino acid is broken down to be used for energy, a small amount of ammonia is released. Ammonia is highly toxic, so it is transformed into urea.

So where does this tie into lying and drug use? Chronic abusers of certain drugs have higher-than-normal protein metabolism. Essentially, they don’t eat, and their body begins to break down muscle tissue and other proteins as a source of energy. This results in a lot of excess urea in the body. Urea is very toxic, and if there’s too much to excrete in the urine, some may be excreted in the breath or by sweating.

Thus, the boss probably smelled urine and concluded that the person was likely a chronic methamphetamine user. Depending on what he was lying about, this may have directly shown that he was lying, or that he was the sort of person who is likely to lie often.


You can say “cat piss” in Prime Time.
You Cannot say “bull shit” in Prime Time.

You might also be interested in this pit thread.

You can say bullshit motherfucking cocksucking liar on HBO.

The point is saying “the stench of cat piss is so strong” had such an odd ring to it. He didn’t say “bullshit” though that would have been in bounds for that show.

It sounded like it might have been an old urban legend (old wives tale, maybe) that a person gave off a scent of cat piss when lying.

I’m trying to think of something equivalent – something crazy that they believed back in the day, but not anymore.

Instant theory (probably wrong):

The dope fiend handed in a sample of his cat’s piss instead of his own during the company’s mandatory drug test.

The boss found out, and that’s why he thinks the DF is untrustworthy.

Don’t try that at home, kids!

The show takes place in the 1870’s. The boss knew the guy was a dope fiend. He sold it to him.

A couple dope couriers had been killed on the road, and so he was grilling the dope fiend about it.

Oh, Deadwood’s on HBO. There goes my theory. Nuts. That’s what I get for cutting back on my TV watching.

The “meth producer/user” inference presented above is almost certainly the point, especially since the individual is typed as a drug user. There’s a detailed and thoughtful thread in the Pit on precisely this question, in a real life context.

(There’s something ironic in the answer to a disputed GQ being available in an affable and supportive thread in the Pit, but I won’t pursue the thought. :))

well, I just read that pit thread, and funnily enough, someone said, “maybe they’re just lying to al swearingen over there.”

In this scene, after Al first makes the cat piss comment, but before he has the guy throw himself off the balcony, you can see that the dope fiend did piss his pants (he might have said he shit himself too?). That may have happened after Al first starts mentioned the cat piss smell though. My guess is that it started with Al knowing the dope fiend was lying and using his particular language skills to add more pressure to the guy. By the end of the scene, it probably did really stink in there.

If that’s the case (I’ve never seen the show), it couldn’t be meth unless they have very lazy writers. Methamphetamine wasn’t synthesized until 1919 and didn’t become a popular street drug until many decades after that.

That was me, Trunk. I’m a huge Deadwood fan. I didn’t even know this thread existed, but when I stumbled across it a few minutes ago, I was instantly in fits of laughter.

I always took that scene to be Al using colorful language to tell the dope fiend that he knew he was lying his ass off. It is a great scene and ends when he makes the guy throw HIMSELF off the balcony into the mud below. How low is your self-esteem if someone can convince you to do that. :eek: I mean, maybe I deserve to be tossed over the edge, but damned if I’ll go without at least a good push.


David Milch, the head writer, is certainly not lazy, and probabaly knows at least as much about drugs as anyone posting on the SDMB ('nuff said).

I’m pretty sure Jammer has it. Milch characters typically talk in a colourful, not to say bizarre, fashion, and Swearingen is one of his prime creations, right up there with Andy Sipowicz. In the crazy rhythms of his speech, practically anything could be said.