Human and animal olfactory perception is shaped both by functional demands and by various environmental constraints seemingly peculiar to chemical stimuli. These demands and constraints may have generated a sensory system that is cognitively distinct from the major senses. In this article we identify these various functional demands and constraints, and examine whether they can be used to account for olfaction's unique cognitive features on a case-by-case basis. We then use this as grounds to argue that specific conscious processes do have functional value, a finding that naturally emerges when a comparative approach to consciousness across the senses is adopted. More generally, we conclude that certain peculiar features of olfactory cognition may owe more to limited neocortical processing resources, than they do to the challenges faced by perceiving chemical stimuli.