Science Explains Why Your Cat Is A Finicky Eater

| Published on December 24, 2015

Could it be that your kitty just has expensive tastes? So you buy her the most expensive cat food on the market…and she still turns her nose up at it. What gives? Why are cats so funny when it comes to food? Recent research just might shed some light on this and even help cat owners who have finicky felines at home.


Bitter & Sweet Taste Receptors

We all know that some people have more taste buds that others, and therefore taste things “better” than other people. I am one of those people and I was labeled as “picky” by my parents – I can tell you all the ingredients in a smoothie, including that fake sugar they try to hide in there. Well it turns out cats might have good reason to be picky too.

Research conducted by BMC Neuroscience earlier this year showed that cats have several difference when it comes to taste than other mammals, in particular humans.

What They Found

Cats can’t taste sweet like we can. While the receptor Tas1r2 that is associated in humans with being able to taste sweet exsists in cats, it’s what they call a “pseudogene,” meaning is present but not functioning. They believe this could be because cats are obligate carnivores, they do not have the “need” to taste sweet in plant-based sugars.

On the other hand, they found cats have more genes to perceive bitter than we do. In fact, in another study published in PLOS One, researchers found that cats had 7 functional bitter taste receptors (Tas2r), 12  in total. This surprised the researchers!


Because their hypothesis was: “if bitter perception exists primarily to protect animals from poisonous plant compounds, the genome of the domestic cat (Felis catus) should have lost functional bitter receptors and they should also have reduced bitter receptor function.”


So why do cats have so many bitter receptors if they don’t need it? The BMC Neuroscience research may have the answers.

In the abstract, they postulate that:

Obligate carnivores consume little to no plant material, a primary source of potentially toxic bitter compounds; therefore, the utility of bitter receptors in these animals is not readily apparent. However, plant constituents are found in the stomachs of feral domestic cats, wild cats and their hybrids [3233]. This plant material may be through direct consumption or through indirect intake of the gastrointestinal tract of prey animals and additional bitter compounds may be present in certain tissues and bile. Furthermore, the composition of domestic cat food includes grains and umami flavors generated from Maillard reactions, which can lead to the generation of bitter compounds [10]. Bitter taste receptors can also detect bacterial metabolites, such as quorum sensing compounds, and bitter taste may be involved in detection of rotten food [3436]. Thus domestic cats have the opportunity to encounter bitter compounds which could influence their preference in either their offered food or while foraging. (

So, in part, it could still be to avoid toxins that are inadvertently getting into their system. For domestic cats, it could also be adaptation based on the omnivorous diets we feed them.

Of course, none of this explains why a cat likes to eat grass, then. But cats are mysterious, so we can expect them to reveal all their secrets.

Image source: @LindseyTurner via Flickr

What This Means For The Cat Owner

First, don’t bother buying your getting some yogurt-covered, sugar-filled treat. It will taste even blander than you can imagine!

Image source: @LaurenceSimon via Flickr

Second, be mindful of ingredients. The less plant-based the better, as far as taste goes, because your cat is going to taste the bitterness of it more than other animals. It also means your cat is going to like the food with more protein (meat) in it, because it will taste better to them.

Third, if you do have a finicky feline, the best trick to getting them to eat may be to sprinkle 100% animal protein on their food, for example The Honest Kitchen’s Wishes, which are 100% fish skin flakes.

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