Cats have earned the reputation for being “finicky,” and this is partly due to physiological factors that cause some foods to be less palatable than others.
Like you, your cat senses taste using taste buds, which reside in the surface of the tongue. Within the taste bud a bundle of “gustatory cells” are contained in a small spherical pocket. The taste bud extends from an opening at the surface of the tongue through to deep within the tongue. The gustatory cells are in close contact with fine nerve endings leading into nerves within the tongue. These eventually lead to the brain. What we and our cats perceive as taste is really a matter of the chemicals from food (or whatever is in the mouth and saliva) interacting with the taste bud cells, stimulating the nerves and then the brain.
Taste is considered one of the most primitive senses; it primes the body for digesting by “getting the juices flowing,” inducing reflexes, such as the digestion of nutrients from the gastrointestinal tract. Scientists believe that taste is tailored to nutritional need, so a cat may use its gustatory cells to choose foods containing chemicals important for their nutrition, and refrain from eating others. Interestingly, many species will choose foods based on protein content — but since cats evolutionarily have been meat eaters, they have not had to develop that portion of their taste selection.
Taste Test. Cats are very sensitive to certain tastes, causing them to be extremely particular about what they eat — often to the chagrin of their owners. But some experts believe that feline food preferences are formed very early in life. By the time a cat is six months old, his dietary preferences are already set. Thus, if you feed your kitten only one type of food, it’s likely that that’s what your cat will prefer for the rest of his life. But if you feed the kitten a broad variety of wet and dry foods, he is likely to be less picky.
Sweet Has No Appeal. Added to this learned behavior are sensory limitations. For example, cats don’t actually have taste receptors for “sweet” like dogs do. Experts say that’s because cats are true carnivores, and a natural diet of meat and bones, etc. is very low in carbohydrates. Therefore, there is no evolutionary advantage to their having a preference or craving for sweet items.
Additionally, cats have very low levels of the enzyme sucrase in their digestive tract, so they cannot break down sucrose or table sugar very well. Ingesting large amounts of sucrose tends to give cats diarrhea. Thus, not craving sugar may be a protective health measure. (If your cat seems to enjoy sweet muffins, for example, chances are she is attracted to the fat and the texture.) This may be the case for some cats enjoying the taste of the ethylene glycol in antifreeze, which is a serious danger to cats who lick it up in a basement or garage. However, dogs are known to be the biggest offender of being attracted to the sweet flavor of anti-freeze.
As carnivores, cats don’t really need to worry about getting enough salt — their prey or well-balanced cat food usually provides enough for them. They do taste salt, though, and experts surmise that the positive response was likely selected during evolution to make eating a pleasurable experience. In fact, cats’ sense of taste responds most positively to the components found in blood, including salts and specific amino acids. Cats like their meats at body temperature, and they don’t seem to care whether the meat is cooked or raw.
Size and Shape. Cats also rely heavily on their sense of smell to determine whether they wish to eat something. Experts feel that aroma seems to be the guiding factor in a cat’s preference for a particular food. Another factor is “mouth feel” — and some cats seem to have a preference in size and shape of their food. They have been known to discriminate between spherical foods differing by only a fraction of an inch, and seem to appreciate edges on pieces of food. That may be the reason why we see so many shapes and sizes of kibble in the pet supply stores.