We think of cats as having extremely fine-tuned and heightened senses compared to our own. In general, this is true but with one exception: Taste. Even though a cat’s sense of taste is weak–especially compared to a person’s taste, this does not necessarily mean that they taste less overall. Instead, their perception of taste is different. While a cat’s appetite is mainly stimulated by smell, taste plays an important role, too.
Anatomically, the taste buds in a cat are located on the tip, sides, and rear of the tongue–basically all around the edges. The main surface of the tongue is reserved for the small barbs that help with grooming and moving food to the back of the mouth. If you’ve ever been licked by a cat, you know that the small barbs feel a lot like rough sandpaper.
Now, humans have approximately 9,000 taste buds which distinguish among sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and meaty/savory flavors. Cats only have about 480 taste buds which distinguish everything but sweet. How do we know this? Well, there are two genes that work together to identify “sweet.” Cats lack one of these genes altogether, and the other is not well-developed. This makes sense, as cats are true carnivores and do not need to eat any plant-based sugars (carbohydrates.) When cats go after sweets, such as pastries and ice cream, it is thought that they are actually drawn to the fat in the food. Some studies show that cats could also be drawn to the texture of certain foods; the texture of a food may cause them to show a preference for foods that offer them no nutritional value.
Like many of us, most cats do not like the taste of anything bitter. This is because they have just as many taste receptors for bitter as we do: about 12 different receptors just for bitter. Cats also seem to have a stronger sensitivity to certain bitter compounds, especially some found in certain toxins and poisons. It is thought that this is to discourage cats from eating poisonous prey, such as some reptiles and invertebrates. Unfortunately, these receptors can make it difficult to give cats necessary medication, as many medications end up tasting unpleasant.
Even though cats have fewer taste buds than we do, they do have an intriguing, additional way to taste food. Cats have a special sense receptor, called the Jacobson’s organ, which is located on the roof of the mouth. It is believed that animals with this organ use it to “taste-smell” aromas around them, such as food and pheromones. Using this setup, odors are inhaled to the cat’s tongue, and the tongue is then used to transfer scents to the roof of the mouth. This means that cats may be able to “taste” the essence of flavors and scents in a way that we do not have the capacity to experience.
Along with odor and taste, the temperature of food is also important to a cat. They tend to prefer warmer food, around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which simulates the temperature of freshly-killed prey. Most cats will reject a cold dish of food just taken from a refrigerator.
We hope you enjoyed learning about how cats experience taste, and we look forward to examining another cat sense with you next time! =^_^=