The taste of cats: why are they so fussy?

The taste of cats often seems incomprehensible to us: while certain foods are incredibly successful, some are not even deemed fit to be sniffed and others are only partially consumed by our demanding four-legged friends. We know that a cat’s perception of sweetness and bitterness is markedly different from that of a human, and a recent study published in PLOS One expands on this aspect by focusing on the genes responsible for this apparent ‘diffidence’.

 

Sustenance, pleasure or … alarm bells? 

The strictly carnivorous cat uses its bitterness and sweetness taste perception to understand if it is facing danger – like a potentially poisonous food – or if it can safely enjoy the meal. This important ability, which a cat shares with herbivores, is due to the presence of genes that are connected to its bitter taste perception. Sweetness, on the other hand, indicates the presence of sugars that, as a source of energy, are of course welcome.

However, the eating habits of our feline friends would lead us to believe that years of meat and fish consumption have ‘disabled’ this feature. In fact, by nature they do not consume plants – except catnip – which they often go crazy for – but geneticists at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia say something different. In fact, 12 different genes for bitter taste in the feline genome have been identified. Added to this, laboratory tests show that cats react to the same bitter components present in plants and poisonous compounds that activate human receptors. For example, they are sensitive to denatonium benzoate, a very bitter substance that is added to detergents and cosmetics to prevent ingestion by children.

 

The taste perception of cats and dogs: the differences 

The same study showed that dogs have similar ‘lifesaver receptors’ to cats: so why does a cat seem fussier? Scholars argue that feline receptors for bitterness also help them to identify early infection, an element they have in common with man but not with dogs.

In conclusion, a cat perceives bitter tastes in a more intense way than humans, meaning man is more akin to dogs in terms of taste. Dogs, in turn, are less sensitive to the unpleasant effects of bitterness: so who is fussy now?