If you surveyed a number of cat parents, many would admit that their feline was a fussy eater. This can cause frustration, especially if a cat needs a prescription diet to help manage a medical condition. It can also make things hard when you need to give a cat medicine – they tend not to want to take their pills and often froth at the mouth after swallowing a liquid or tablet.
It does raise the question, though: is there a reason why cats are more discerning with their tastes when most dogs will eat just about anything?
Scientists may have worked that out, and the answer can be found in the taste buds. If you consider it from a safety point of view, many dangerous plants and berries taste bitter. This suggests that the ability to taste bitter was of particular benefit to herbivores. It doesn't explain why carnivorous cats have retained this extreme sensitivity to that particular flavor – they aren't likely to graze on plants and berries.
The Cat's Sense of Taste
Studies have shown that cats have as many as twelve genes involved in sensing bitter flavors. This is interesting because a gene that isn't needed by a species tends to disappear through evolution. For example, cats can no longer taste sweet things because sweet tends to be associated with carbohydrates and starches – foods that a carnivorous animal won't eat. They have lost the gene that's associated with detecting sweet tastes. Similarly, they don't need to rely on bitter flavors to identify potentially harmful plants. So why have the bitter genes persisted?
It has been discovered that human beings also have bitter taste receptors in their airways of the lungs – an area where they're not going to encounter food. These receptors are thought to be involved in detecting evidence of bacteria. Does this then mean that the cat has bitter receptors in their taste buds and is sensitive to bitter flavors for a similar purpose? The answer to that isn't yet known.
Other things can also affect your cat's appetite. Their sense of smell is extremely important, so if the food you put in their dinner bowl doesn't have much of an aroma, it won't appeal. Also, if they have a respiratory infection with a blocked nose, they won't be able to smell, and this will affect their interest in eating.
What do you do with a fussy cat? First, a visit to the vet is in order to make sure that there isn't a medical reason for it, such as dental disease or kidney problems. Next, warm up their food because this makes it smell a little stronger and makes it more appetizing. You can also experiment with tastes and textures to see what your cat prefers.
Your picky cat may not be choosing to be fussy; their discerning taste appears to be coded in their genes. This research into a cat's taste buds and sensitivity to bitter flavors will mean the development of not only new foods but also new ways to deliver medication. It would be so much easier to treat a cat if they willingly took their medicine!