11 min

Can Cats Taste Sweet Food?

Can Cats Taste Sweet Food?

Becky Bicks

Updated January 10, 2023 • Published September 22, 2019

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Can Cats Taste Sweet Food?

It's normal to think of your cat like a family member or a sweet furry companion. However, understanding your cat's behavior is actually much more complicated than simply regarding him as another friend. In reality, cats are very different from humans in terms of both biology and psychology — and this is particularly true when it comes to diet.

When you are enjoying a delicious food (whether that's a quick snack or a full human meal), your cat may be interested in partaking in it, too. Some bold cats may be daring enough to try to steal bites of your plate. Or, they may have a tendency to try to get into human food when no one is looking. In reality, however, what they're after is probably different than what you realize — and really different than what you'd be after if you were looking to steal a bite from someone else's plate. This means that even if you are tempted to give your cat a bite of whatever you're eating, it's important to understand that not only may it not be good for them, they might not even like it.

One thing that might surprise you about cats and what they can eat is that there's a popular taste sensation that you probably really enjoy that your cat simply does not: the taste of things that are sweet. That's not because cats loved their canned food or because they prefer tuna over cake. In reality, it is because cats can't even taste sweet foods — which is an important reason why you should avoid letting your cat eat things that are sugary or high in carbohydrates.

Here's what you need to know about cats' ability to taste sweet flavors, what cats should eat and like to eat, and why you should be careful giving your cat anything that might be sugary or dessert-like.

How Sweetness is Experienced in Most Mammals (but Not Cats)

We often think about giving our cats snacks that we call "cookies" or "treats." In the human mind, we probably conjure up images of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies or sugary wafers. In reality, however, cat treats (at least those you get from the store) don't taste sweet. Instead, they probably taste like meat or fish. This is not necessarily a preference thing, though cats do enjoy the taste of protein-y foods. In reality, it's because they actually lack the biological ability to taste sweetness. One more surprising fact: cats are the only mammal that we know of that cannot taste sweetness.

Mammals experience the ability to taste thanks to the tiny bumps we call tastebuds on our tongues. These little buds are actually receptors. that can read proteins in the cells of foods, then send messages to the brain about the ingredients as they experience them. In humans, the taste of sweetness is picked up by a receptor that's comprised of two couple proteins, which are created by two genes: Tas1r2 an Tas1r4.

Tasting sweetness is important for most mammals, especially us humans, because sweetness sends our brains an important message. That message is that the food we are eating is likely high in carbohydrates. It could also be that the food is very high in vitamin content. The human body evolved to prioritize and value carbohydrates, which are packed with energy. The same is true for plant eaters or other animals that derive valuable energy from a wide variety of sources. However, cats are meat eaters, not plant eaters, and so their taste receptors tend to be different.

Why Cats Can't Taste Sweetness

Ultimately, the taste receptors in a creature's mouth are reflective of that creature's diet and food choices. Cats are strictly carnivores. This means that they need meat to survive, and they crave meat as a preference for what to eat. Cats can survive exclusively on meat; they don't need carbohydrates in their diet to survive, and they don't particularly derive any nutrition from consuming carbs. Thus, their body evolved to reflect this dietary preference, and their lacks many of the important amino acids that make up the Tas1r2 gene. The result? They physically have no receptors on their tongue that can pick up the taste of sweetness.

You may have seen your cat eating a sweet food. Perhaps they were sticking their head in an ice cream carton or licking your slice of cake. In reality, the cat was probably drawn to another ingredient in the human food and not the sweet taste. Most likely, that ingredeint was fat.

When it comes to lacking the ability to taste things that are sweet, the same holds true for all cats: no felines, from cougar to kitten, Simba to Thomasina, can pick up the taste of that sugary goodness we humans love. (That lasagna that Garfield was always coveting must have been a meat lasagna!) Otherwise, cats' tasting ability is very similar to that of humans'. They can taste things that are bitter, sour, and salty, just like us.

The Benefits of Understanding that Cats Can't Taste Sweetness

OK, you might be thinking: so what? I don't feed my cat dessert anyway. Why should I care that cats can't taste sweetness? While cat's biological taste receptors might seem irrelevant to your and your pet, understanding that cats can't taste sweetness can have some very helpful benefits for the world at large.

First, knowing that cats can't taste sweet things and don't covet them can help you choose the right cat food. More affordable mass-produced cat foods today include carbohydrate ingredients. In fact, experts believe that most popular cat foods these days have around 20% carbohydrate ingredients in them. These ingredients are usually corn or grain. However, cats don't even enjoy eating those carbohydrate ingredients, and it can even be bad for them. Experts believe that many cats are getting diabetes today because so many are eating grain that they do not need and cannot process properly. So, by understanding what your can actually enjoys and wants, it can help guide you in making smarter, more informed decisions about choosing the right food for your pet.

Also, knowing that cats cannot taste sweetness may be able to help scientists and companies make better cat food. This means that people can better understand how to make a food that a cat will want to eat—even if that cat is particularly picky. This can also be important for people who are trying to make cat food that is medicinal. If a cat is sick and needs to be enticed to eat or gain weight, that food does not need to be high in sugars or carbohydrates. It should be high in protein or fatty ingredients if you are trying to make the cat feel drawn to it.

Why You Should Be Careful About What You Feed Your Cat

This part probably seems obvious, but you should be mindful about what food you give your cat or allow your cat to have access to. Cats have very specific nutritional needs. If you want to both keep your beloved pet feeling well and healthy enough to live for a long time, you should make sure you meet these needs.

Here are a few basics about what you should know about cat nutrition, beyond the fact that your cat cannot taste sweetness and does not need to eat carbs or sweets.

  • Water is an essential nutrient for cats. Keeping your cat hydrated is just as important (if not more) than ensuring your cat is properly fed.

  • Your cat needs protein. Animal sources of protein are good choices since your cat is naturally a carnivore.

  • Fat is important in your cat's diet because it helps keep their skin and coat healthy. Many meat and fish sources have essential fatty acids in them.

  • Cats can become overweight easily, just like humans. Be mindful not to give your cat too much food, or food that is too high in carbohydrates and thus too packed with calories. Cat obesity can cause a slew of problems for your pet, including joint pain, diabetes, liver problems, and more.

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