While some cats will steal the sandwich right from your hand, the majority of our feline friends are classified as picky eaters. It can be hard to find a type of food that makes them happy, and a lot of cats will only eat one specific brand, flavor, or texture. This common personality quirk can be frustrating for the humans responsible for keeping cats fed, and studies have been done looking for scientific explanations. One of the most revealing of those studies, published in BMC Neuroscience, analyzes feline taste buds in hopes of helping scientists and manufacturers develop cat food and medications that are more appealing to the picky eaters of the cat world.
An Evolved Sensitivity
It’s scientific fact that cats have about 8,000 fewer taste buds than humans. This means that for cats, flavors are more generalized. In theory, this should suggest that cats would be less picky about the food that goes into their mouths. That’s how it works for dogs, after all. Dogs actually have more taste buds than cats, but still a lot less than humans. And anyone who has ever met a dog knows that our canine friends will happily eat just about anything you give them. So why isn’t this true for cats?
The answer has to do with the type of taste receptors cats have, not the overall quantity. Researchers have found that cats are especially sensitive to bitter tastes. The leading theory is that this sensitivity evolved as a way to protect the cats of the past from toxic substances found in spoiled meat and certain plants. That ability isn’t as important for today’s pampered felines, but it’s something that has stuck with cats through thousands of years.
It’s Not All the Same
In the study, researchers looked at how feline bitter taste receptors responded to bitter compounds compared to how human taste buds work. They tested several specific taste receptors to see just how sensitive cats are to certain tastes. Their results show that while cats are less sensitive than humans to certain compounds, including the bitter taste of the aloe plant, they are more sensitive to other tastes, like the additive used to deter animals from consuming certain household chemicals.
Through their research, scientists were able to pinpoint which feline taste receptors are generally the most sensitive. It doesn’t explain why some cats will only eat a certain texture of food, but it does say a lot about why they tend to dislike certain tastes.
Putting Knowledge to Good Use
Thanks to researchers, we now have a better understanding of why cats can be such picky eaters. We know it’s most likely related to how they evolved to avoid potentially dangerous foods, and we know certain bitter tastes are more off-putting than others. And thanks to this knowledge, researchers hope pet product developers will be able to formulate food and medications that are more appealing to the majority of cats.
Not only could we eliminate the worst bitter flavors from cat food, we can also mask those specific tastes in things like medication. Getting cats to take oral medication is almost always a struggle. This is usually because compounds in medicinals are naturally bitter-tasting. But with in-depth knowledge of feline taste receptors, it could be possible to make pills and tablets taste a little less awful to cats. It could also help in developing things like pill pastes and pockets that are meant to mask the taste of medications.
This better understanding is great progress, and it will most likely affect how we feed and medicate our cats in the future. You still might have to cater to your cat’s preference for cubed cat food over stews, but it’s a step in the right direction.