Are cats pickier with food than dogs and if so, why?

The answer is a confident yes and it is mainly to do with their sweet and bitter taste receptors. Humans have over 9,000 taste receptors, dogs have 1,700, while cats have only 473. Dogs taste sweetness much better than cats. Another difference is that dogs are scavengers and cats are not. In round terms feline taste, sense of smell and sharp predatory instincts contrive to make the domestic cat seem to be a picky eater sometimes.

Feline taste, sense of smell and predatory instincts contrive to make the domestic cat seem to be a picky eater sometimes.
Feline taste, sense of smell and predatory instincts contrive to make the domestic cat seem to be a picky eater sometimes. Image: MikeB
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Background information on feline taste

The sense of taste is weak in cats, compared with humans. We have 9000 taste buds, while they have only 473. But they make up for this with a much better sense of smell – 30 times better than ours. For this reason, cats much prefer warm food to cold food, because when it is heated up, its aroma intensifies.

Dr Desmond Morris in Cat World

The reason why cats do not have a sweet tooth (they have a weak response to sweet tastes) is because there are strict carnivores. Humans evolved a sweet tooth because fruits are part of our natural diet. It was important for humans to respond positively to ripened fruits but this was not the case for the predatory cat.

There was a time when the experts thought that cats could not detect any sweet taste but this is untrue. Tests have proved that cats can appreciate the presence of sweet tastes but it is not a powerful reaction. Cats do respond to milk laced with sucrose compared to milk without any sweetening.

A cat’s strongest reaction is to sour tastes, next in line is a bitter taste then salt and finally sweet tastes. There are no taste buds in the center of the tongue as that area is entirely devoted to rasping meat from bones or with cleaning fur.

Temperature

Cats are also sensitive to the food’s temperature. This is because, as mentioned above, the cat is not a scavenger. They like to eat freshly killed prey in inheriting their wildcat ancestor’s character. The ideal preferred temperature for feline food is 30°C (86°F) which is the same temperature as the cat’s tongue.

Food taken straight from the refrigerator is anathema to the cat unless they’re very hungry. Comment: I give my cat prawns straight from the refrigerator and he loves them because he loves prawns so much that this overrides the barrier the chilling presents.

Taste less important than smell

The argument is that cats are less incentivised to eat by the taste of food. I’m not sure that’s correct however but it is pretty clear that domestic cats gauge the quality and the palatability of food with their noses.

You will notice them sniffing food before they start eating. I guess humans do that as well but humans are more visual and more involved with taste whereas cats rely heavily on the smell of food.

Cats lack sweet taste receptors and have little taste buds, compensated by their nose and vomeronasal organ

THE STUDY OF THE ANATOMY AND PHYSIOLOGY OF THE DIGESTIVE TRACT IN THE DOMESTIC CAT

It’s a reason why caregivers provide odorous (smelly) food when a sick cat has lost their appetite.

Bitter taste receptors

Another possibility as to why cats have got a reputation as picky eaters is because although they have bitter receptors as do dogs it may be that some of the cat’s taste receptors are especially sensitive to bitter compounds.

They may be more sensitive to bitter chemicals than dogs or they may detect a greater number of bitter compounds in their diet.

Scientists have suggested that wild cats can detect whether a food is palatable or not by how bitter it is because a bitter taste can indicate that the flesh might be harmful as it is rancid. But they also suggest that domestic cats might taste bitter flavours in their commercially prepared food (and in their medicines) because plant extracts are mixed in which may taste bitter to them.

We know that cats, as mentioned, can detect bitterness but we don’t know exactly how their taste for bitterness varies from humans.

Cats are discerning eaters compared to dogs

It’s been suggested that foods that taste bland to us or a dog might be unpleasant to a cat. The better description might be that they are discerning eaters whereas dogs, to an outsider like me, seem to eat anything and everything.

Dogs are scavengers while cats are not

There are a number of reasons why the domestic dog appears to eat almost anything. One of them is that they are scavengers whereas cats are not. Although, of course, we turn them into scavengers in the home when we provide them with their daily food in a bowl.

Dogs will also explore the world with their powerful sense of smell and taste which encourages them to chew and potentially swallow the things that they pick up in their mouths. Boredom, stress and loneliness might be another reason. Less common reasons would be a compulsion to eat non-food items or excessive hunger might be a side effect of certain medications and finally as malnutrition due to poor caregiving.

My bet would be that the scavenging instinct of dogs is a powerful driver compared to the non-scavenging instinct of domestic cats who, as you know, inherit all their behavioural characteristics from the wildcat ancestor.

Some guidelines on feeding cats

Infographic on some guidelines on feedings cats
Infographic on some guidelines on feedings cats prepared by MikeB at PoC
Infographic on some guidelines on feedings cats
Infographic on some guidelines on feedings cats prepared by MikeB at PoC

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