Thursday, January 3, 2008

Cats and Taste

It appears, cats have a greater sensitivity to taste than people. They have about twice the number of smell receptors in their nasal passage the humans and have different culinary preferences.

While the nose provides information on the subtleties of odor and flavor, it’s the tongue that does the most of the work of tasting. On the tongue’s surface their are tissues called papillae that hold many microscopic clusters of taste-sensitive cells (taste buds). When your cat eats a mouthful of food, its saliva dissolves some of the chemical components in the food, including salts, acids, and sugars. The taste buds detect these dissolved chemicals and signal the brain by way of three pairs of cranial nerves. Because taste buds on different areas of the tongue vary in their sensitivity to particular types of chemicals, the brain can identify a taste based on the pattern of signals it receives.

Your cat’s tongue has other talents beyond tasting. It also senses texture and temperature and acts as a ladle to pick up liquids and tiny food morsels. As with all animals, during swallowing, muscles at the base of the tongue pull on the hyoid apparatus, a set of small bones in the throat. These bones then shift forward, closing off the windpipe with a flap of tissue called the epiglottis.

The cat’s tongue has a rough surfaced sandpaper texture. This is created by the stiff, curved filiform papillae in the tongue’s center. This rough surface helps cats during grooming. But this textured tongue also aids in feeding. Wild cats use their tongues to remove feathers or fur from their prey and to lick meat from the bones. Oddly enough, the only other domestic animals that have raspy tongues are the vegetarian cow and its relatives.

While we know quite a lot about the structure of the feline tongue, we know considerably less about its tasting abilities. After all, your cat can’t tell you whether it perceives something as sweet, sour, or bitter. Nevertheless, scientists have tried to assess the gustatory sensitivity of cats by training them to discriminate between plain water and water mixed with sugar, salt, or some other substance. The results of these taste tests suggest that cats can detect sour, bitter, and salty tastes, but not sweet ones.

Cats appear to be sensitive to the taste of water itself. While humans generally consider water to be tasteless, cats show a high sensitivity to natural variations in water flavor. This may explain why certain cats are picky in their drinking habits. Some cats will only drink running water from the tap. I know of other cats that will drink only from unmentionable sources!
Do cats have a sweet tooth? Many people say their cats show a district preference for sweet foods like ice cream, cookies, and fruit. The evidence may be misleading. The textures of these foods - called mouth feel - may actually be more important that their taste. For example, the desire for ice cream , may be due to its iciness and creaminess - not its sweetness. It’s also possible that dessert-eating cats are simply mimicking owner food preferences. Unfortunately, owners don’t always set the best example for their cats. Many human foods contribute nothing to feline nutrition and health - and some foods may actually be harmful. Our hospital pet “Cricket” loves cranberry juice, mandarin oranges, cranberry-orange muffins, and of course cat food. Go figure!

As your cat goes about deciding which foods it likes, it weighs several factors. The odor, taste, and feel of a food in the mouth seem important . Cats will often choose foods with lots of meat, a powerful aroma, a high fat content, a combination of soft and crispy textures, and a temperature of about 98 degrees. This is about the temperature of fresh killed mammals.

Cats also prefer variety in their diets. If they have a choice between two equally palatable foods, one familiar and the other unfamiliar, most will eat more of the new stuff - at least for a few days. Eventually, of course, the new stuff becomes as mundane as the old stuff. This feline preference for novel foods probably explains why so many types of cat food on supermarket shelves. It may also account for the “finicky” reputation of cats. But this infamous dietary pickiness may be more fabled than real. Most cats eat heartily even with only one item on their menu - unless they are ill.

Although your cat may prefer variety, there’s a downside to an ever-changing diet. Some cats may suffer indigestion or allergic reactions after eating new foods. And animals with certain medical conditions may need to stay on a prescribed diet. An occasional change of diet is fine for healthy cats.

We recommend feeding the higher quality - and therefore usually higher priced - cat foods. You get what you pay for. The reasoning behind this is simple. Pet foods that are less expensive are inconsistent in their ingredients and probably are using more by-products and less quality protein sources. I definitely would ask your veterinarian for recommendations as to the type of foods they endorse (though beware also, they may have special deals with certain pet food companies and therefore not give you an unbiased view). Feeding dry foods also may help with your pet’s dental needs by cleaning off some of the plaque buildup.

If you’ve ever had such a bad cold that it totally clogged your nose and sinuses and made your favorite curry dinner taste like cardboard, you know that losing your sense of smell and taste can put a real damper on your appetite. The same seems to be true of cats.

If your cat is ill and stops eating, it could suffer serious repercussions from even a mini-hunger strike. Cats that quit eating for several days can become weak and dehydrated, and prolonged fasting can lead to a condition called hepatic lipidosis, a dangerous accumulation of fat in the liver. Therefore, if your pet has not eaten for several days, see your veterinarian immediately.

To assist your sick cat in eating and, after consulting with your veterinarian, you may attempt the following:

Feed a very smelly food, such as sardines, tuna, or liver.

Heat up the food slightly. This will increase the aroma.

Hand feed your cat.

If it still is not eating, seek veterinary attention immediately.

No comments: