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cat parent basics
Cat taste buds

The essentials

  • A cat’s sense of taste is weaker than ours — Cats only have a few hundred taste buds on their tongues, while the average human tongue has about 9,000.
  • Cats can’t taste sweets — Because cats are meat eaters and don’t need sugar for energy, they’ve lost the sweet-tooth gene.
  • Cats can be picky eaters — Evolution has shaped cats’ taste buds in a very specific way, but it’s pretty easy to make sure they’re getting enough nutrition.

Do cats have taste buds?

In short, yes, cats have taste buds. However, they only have 470 or so on their tongues compared to the 9,000 taste buds on the human tongue. Cats mainly rely on their heightened sense of smell to tell the difference between flavors. They also use a special organ in the roof of the mouth called a Jacobson’s organ to pick up the essence of certain flavors in a way that we can’t experience.

What exactly can cats taste? 

Humans have taste buds that recognize five different flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. Cats’ taste buds work a lot like ours but have evolved to meet a different set of needs. For instance, cats still have bitter and sour taste sensors to detect harmful and poisonous foods. Since they don’t eat any sugar, their sweet buds have also become non-existent.

Cats can’t taste sweets

Cats are considered obligate carnivores, which means they’re driven to eat only meat. That means they don’t need — and can’t digest — sugars and carbohydrates, which is why evolution eventually got rid of the gene for their sweet tooth. Even if your cat seems attracted to some sweet foods, they’re probably just eating them for the novelty, texture, and fat.

A cat’s taste preferences

Cats can be finicky eaters. The favorite food yesterday might suddenly be the meal they refuse today. This may stem from underlying digestive issues, but it’s likely just a matter of their taste preferences. Consider these factors the next time you feed your cat:

Texture (dry or wet food)

Cats typically love either wet or dry food, though some prefer softer foods over harder ones. If your cat is eating dry food, they’ll likely favor big pieces over crumbs.

Wet food can be extremely beneficial for some cats because of its high water content, especially cats that require a higher-than-normal water intake because of conditions like kidney disease, diabetes, or lower urinary tract disease. Keep in mind, though, that canned food only has a shelf-life of 24 hours and must be stored in the refrigerator after opening.

Temperature

Cats generally prefer their food at either room temperature or slightly warm (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit) to simulate the temperature of freshly killed prey. Don’t be surprised if your cat rejects cold food or food just out of the fridge.

Flavor

Since meat mainly drives a cat’s appetite, they tend to prefer more savory foods. Of course, not every cat will enjoy the same flavor of cat food.

What to do if your cat is a picky eater

Your seemingly high-maintenance cat has evolution to blame for their picky eating. Fear not, though. There’s a lot you can do:

Talk to your vet — Take your cat to the vet to make sure their picky eating isn’t a symptom of an underlying condition, such as dental disease. Oral pain can cause a cat to eat less or suddenly prefer canned food over dry food.

Set a routine — Put out food for your cat at the same time each day, making sure to only leave it out for 15 to 30 minutes before taking it away until the next mealtime. This way, your cat gets a better idea of exactly when it’s time to eat. Offer them meals two to three times a day and monitor the amount of food they consume to make sure they are eating the appropriate amount. If you are unsure how much food to feed your cat per day, give your local vet hospital a call, as the staff there can guide you.

Try a different texture or brand of cat food — Sometimes, picky eating habits just come down to taste preferences. Try switching up the texture or brand of food you give your cat and see if the problem goes away.

Use a food topper — Some people use safe human food options like no-salt-added chicken to increase the appeal of their cat’s regular food. Consult a vet before making changes like this to your cat’s diet.

Rotate foods — Switch up the types of food you feed your cat to keep mealtime interesting. Just make sure you watch for any digestion issues that arise after the change.

Change the feeding dish — The answer to your cat’s picky eating could be as simple as switching from a plate to a bowl, or vice versa. Try serving their meals in different containers made from different materials — ceramic, metal, and glass — until you find one they like.

Stop feeding treats — Your cat might be cute as heck, but giving them a ton of treats throughout the day may kill their appetite. Limit treats to one or two per day at specific times; their motivation to eat their actual meals should return before long.

Frequently asked questions

What flavors can cats taste?

While cats have fewer taste buds than other animals, they still seem to be able to taste sour, bitter, salty, and savory flavors.

What can cats taste that humans can’t?

Cats use their heightened sense of smell and a special organ in the roof of their mouth called the Jacobson’s organ to detect flavors in a way humans can’t experience. In this way, they can “taste” certain things we cannot, like pheromones.

How many taste buds does a cat have?

A cat only has about 470 taste buds — a lot fewer than the 9,000 found on the human tongue.

What flavors can’t cats taste?

Cats lack the gene necessary to taste sweet food. Scientists think they might be the only mammal missing the sweet-tooth gene.

Can dogs and cats taste sugar?

Dogs can taste sugar like humans, but cats cannot.