When we feed our cats, we often feed them the same food over and over again and, sometimes, it leaves us wondering whether they actually enjoy their food. The problem is when we wonder or judge the fact that they seem quite happy to chow down the same meal every single day, we are doing so coming from our point of view and how we, as humans eat, consume and enjoy the food. The fact is that cats have very different senses of taste with their cat taste buds to us so we should not fear that subjecting them to the same food over and over again is a form of animal cruelty!
Here, in this article, we look at some cool facts about a cat’s sense of taste in terms of cat taste buds as well as answering the common questions, can a cat taste sweet flavors, can a cat sense sour flavors and can a cat sense spicy flavors. It makes for an entertaining and interesting read!
Facts About Your Cat’s Sense of Taste
- Humans have, on average, about 12 times more taste buds on their tongues as cats
This is quite a remarkable fact to learn, to the point that it sounds almost unbelievable. However, it is very much true that cats have a huge amount of taste buds less than humans – one direct reason why we should not judge them or worry about their enjoyment of food as much as we do! There’s simply no need!
This is because they have 470 taste buds in direct comparison to our 9000. While they can still taste the food, they employ several different senses and ways to do so. For starters, their sense of smell is far better than ours and has a huge impact and bearing on what they can taste with their cat taste buds. Secondly, they have a whole other organ to us called the Jacobson organ which helps them taste too. In practice, this means that smells are inhaled into the mouth over the tongue and coming over a curled lip in the process. From there Jacobson’s organ works in conjunction with the mouth with its cat taste buds and nose to let your cat taste flavor.
- Cats are highly sensitive to bitter tasting things
Given the lack of taste buds on their tongues, it makes us question whether cats can differentiate between different flavors like sweet, sour and bitter as we do. Well in the case of bitter tasting foods, cats are exceptionally sensitive. This is because a huge portion of their bitter receptor cat taste buds is highly attuned to bitter tastes.
When this was discovered, it was a surprising notion for feline scientists as it was previously thought that as an animal that purely ate meat, they did not have the need for bitter receptors. The reason being for this initial hypothesis was that as they did not eat plant matter so they did not need the bitter receptors to taste the difference between poisonous plant-based food and plant-based food that was perfectly fine to ingest. Scientists had presumed that cats had evolved not to need bitter receptors, therefore.
However, this has now be found not to be the case and the hypothesis has been widely discredited. Their bitter taste buds actually protect them against eating poisonous plants they may eat if they were desperately hungry.
- Other ways their bitter sense of taste protects them
It’s not just plants that these bitter receptors protect a cat against. Bitter tastes are also found in poisonous parts of an animal carcass or if that animal carcass is dangerous to eat. In short, bitter receptors stop or prevent a cat from eating toxic ingredients that could harm a cat’s body. More specifically, cats would be immediately put off eating animals such as reptiles or amphibians or insects that are a huge risk for them to eat. A good example would be the types of frogs that inhabit jungles. We could imagine our cats chasing after these crazy jumping creatures, but they are stopped short of eating them for good reason.
While not many domesticated cats live in jungles, there are still ways that these bitter receptors protect cats now. For instance, cats still chase, kill and eat mice, but often leave one small part – the gallbladder. This part of the mouse tastes bitter due to the high content of bile it contains. Were your cat to ingest this, he or she would have a very nasty stomach upset.
- Cats can taste some other flavors too
While they are highly receptive to bitter flavors, cats can also taste a number of other tastes. These are umami, the little-known flavor that we as humans can taste too. It is hard to describe, but it is a savory flavor that can also be a little meaty. Cats can also taste salt like us as well as sour. We shall investigate their ability to taste sour flavors later, but it’s good to know that what helps a cat taste bitter, salty, umami and sour foods is the combination of the nose, mouth and Jacobson’s organ allows a cat to taste foods in a way that we can never experience.
- Cats have preferences to how food is prepared
Cats are actually fussy about the consistency of food and how it is prepared. They are far more likely to eat a bowl full of food that is in large pieces as opposed to broken down into much smaller crumbs. They also prefer softer food in comparison to hard food, which is perhaps why wet cat food is so often far more quickly eaten than dry cat food. Additionally, cats are particular to how hot or cold food is. It has been found that cats are far happier to eat warm food as opposed to any other temperature. The reason being, it is thought that, if they were to have killed prey in the wild, it would be warm when eating it. Even those cats are now domesticated, on the whole, they will still stay true to genetics and prefer food that is laid out for them in a bowl at warm temperatures, or better yet raw cat food – not too hot and definitely not too cold.
Can Cats Taste Spicy Flavors?
In short, cats can taste spice, but only in theory. The reality is they while they can taste there is a difference between spicy food and other tastes, it is not quite as we would taste the stark difference between eating at an Italian restaurant and eating an Indian restaurant.
One of the reasons for this difference is obviously the difference in the number of cat taste buds that cats have in comparison to humans. It is for this reason that cats, when tasting the spicy food, are far more reliant on their sense of smell as opposed to the tongue when differentiating between flavors. In fact, their sense of smell is far more important to them when eating than it is for humans – even though, for humans, it is also an intrinsic part of enjoying the food. So if they can smell the differences between spices, they will be able to taste the differences between spices too.
However, scientists are still wary of saying that cats can taste the difference between spicy foods as it is not in their genetic makeup to need to know the difference. Given that cats are meant to be on a meat only diet, it is often argued that they do not have the same amount of cat taste buds so they can not and do not acquire a taste for spicy things, or other food that could be bad for them. This is a stark difference to humans, therefore.
So why can cats appear to like spicy food? Well, it is perhaps misleading to think that it is the spice in the spicy food that is what your cat is hankering after. In fact, it is far more likely to be the meat in the spicy food or even the fact that they can smell and what they are keen to eat, rather than the smell of the spices. Further to this are the characteristics of food that cats like, that are mentioned above. I.e. spicy food is warm, in large chunks and often contains meat and fat.
As an owner, however, you should be aware that some spices are bad for cats. For example, nutmeg, turmeric or paprika can be toxic as well as popular flavorings like garlic or onions. Additionally, strong spices can also upset a cat’s tummy. However, if your cat is having a toxic reaction to a spice that they have inadvertently ingested, it will result in symptoms like dark or unusual looking urine, shortness of breath as well as diarrhea and vomiting. They can actually suffer from liver damage too. If you are worried, go to your vet immediately.
Can Cats Taste Sweet Flavors?
Cats have evolved without sweet taste buds so cannot taste sweet flavors. The theory behind this evolution is that cats are unable to digest carbohydrates and so as a form of protection against them, their tongues evolved to not have sweet receptors so that they would not search out a foodstuff that they cannot digest nor have any use for. Remember, cats should be solely on a diet of protein as they are what is known as obligate carnivores.
However, in the day and age of mass cat food production, manufacturers obviously want to cut costs where they can and so by plumping up their food with cheaper ingredients, they can improve their margins and profitability. This is why grains and sugars are often seen as the primary ingredient in cat foods. Grains are a form of carbohydrate that your cat then has to digest and metabolizes it into sugars. This is why more and more cats are developing diabetes. Their bodies simply cannot handle the surge in the energy source that they are not programmed to eat.
If you have a cat that does naturally eat sweet things, it will be for the same reasons that a cat may look like they want spicy food. They like the smell of the food that is giving off a fragrance of something that they are genetically wired to search for and want. I.e meat or fat.
That’s not to say they won’t enjoy a cat treat or two every now and then.
Related Post: Best Cat Treats
Can Cats Taste Sour Flavors?
It is thought that cats can taste sour flavors for the same reasons that they can taste bitter flavors – as a form of self-preservation. Their sour receptors are therefore much more highly attuned than any of their other tasting sensations other than their receptors for bitter flavors. They have to be so that cats can survive by not ingesting anything that contains something that is potentially toxic to them. As in the case of bitter food, sour food to a cat could be poisonous like a plant or berry that should not be eaten, or a part of a carcass that is no longer ok to eat. By having more sour receptors, in place of where sweet ones are, cats are able to protect themselves by keeping their diet to things that they can ingest and gain nutrition from.
Cat’s most definitely, in a way that other pets don’t, have a much different way of tasting than we do as humans. A great deal of it is how they have evolved to keep themselves safe from eating food that is dangerous and toxic to them and another big part of their different tasting mechanisms is simply down to need. As they only need meat, they do not need other taste buds that allow them to taste other flavors on the spectrum – like sweet foods for example.
Bearing all this in mind should give owners some comfort that by repeatedly giving the same food that is high in meat or protein, they are doing exactly right by their feline friend.
- Dr. Tony Buffington DVM, MS, PHD, DACVN, Strange Eating Habits in Cats — Why Do They Do That?, VetStreet
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.