Since cats can be so very finicky about what they eat, you would think they have a highly refined palate and a refined sense of taste. Just as they can smell more than we humans, must they also be more attuned to the tastes in foods? Or, don’t they at least have the same basic level of taste perception as we do?
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The first thing to keep in mind is that taste and flavor are two different things. Taste is perceived through our tongue, whereas flavor is a combination of taste and smell. Where we humans have around 9000 taste buds, cats have less than 500. Like us, they can perceive salty, sour, bitter, and sweet. Do they taste ‘umami?’ Well, we don’t know but they are sensitive to the amino acids found in meat. Regardless, their overall taste perception is much weaker than ours.
Among the basic tastes, a cat is less able to detect sweetness. Although a cat may enjoy ice cream, it is probably the creaminess he likes, rather than the sweetness, as well as perhaps the cold temperature.
All this certainly means foods taste very different to cats than they do to us. What they really experience, though, is impossible to know. They can’t tell us!
However, lest you think your cat is limited by his lack of taste buds, it is the sense of smell that cats rely on the most to tell them what foods are good to eat. Inside their noses, cats have many more odor-detecting nerve endings than humans. Their olfactory mucosa cover 2 to 3 square inches, much larger an area than humans, even though we are so much larger.
When a cat sniffs something, the air doesn’t just pass through the nose, over the scent-detecting cells, into the lungs, and back out. Instead, some of the air remains behind the subthemoid shelf in the cat’s nose, allowing more time to gather information about the scent.
They also have a scent organ in the roof of their mouths called the vomeronasal (or Jacobson’s) organ. If you have ever seen your cat making a funny gape-mouthed face with her tongue hanging out and her muzzle wrinkled, perhaps while watching birds, she was passing air over this organ to catch a scent. This action is commonly called gaping in fact, but it has other names, such as sneering, snake mouth, or flehming.
So, although cats don’t have nearly the sense of taste that we do, their sense of smell is so much more acute than either our sense of taste or smell that their experience of food may well be sharper, only in a way we cannot understand. This acute sense of smell allows kittens to find mother’s nipple even though their eyes are not yet open. They do not rely on smell for hunting as much as dogs do. Cats are instead ambush predators, relying on their keen vision and motion detection.
Cats do seem very sensitive to the taste of water. This may be, paradoxically, why cats drink out of the toilet. While you may not be able to tell the difference between a bottle of actual spring water and bottled distilled water with a fancy name, your cat probably can.