How Do Cats Choose What To Eat?

Luxuriating in the warmth of your sun-drenched bay window with a bird's-eye view of the backyard feeder, your pampered feline snuggles in to watch the show. She intently gazes at songbirds and chatters at them, making clear she's craving one of your fine-feathered friends for brunch. Visions of angelfish dancing in her head, she plans her menu for later, deciding she'll go paw-fishing in your aquarium for dinner. Your cat is naturally choosing what she would like to eat, but it's only a daydream: a figment of her vivid predator's imagination.

Fortunately, you ultimately make the decisions about what your cat will eat. Retaining the same wild instincts passed down by her ancestors, your cat is a huntress extraordinaire. But living in your palace, she can't indulge her primal instincts. Rest assured, her selections will closely mimic the prey of her dreams. After all, cats are obligate carnivores hardwired to consume meat. Both domestic cats and their "big cat" cousins prefer juicy morsels of meat, fish, or poultry as their primary source of sustenance. But how does your cat choose what to eat from your gourmet offerings?

scottish fold cat eating from red bowl
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For optimum health and longevity, cats require food rich in protein, carbohydrates, fat, and amino acids like taurine from a high-quality source. On the other hand, to satisfy inborn feline cravings, and make his taste buds sing, your cat's food must meet his high standards for excellence.

With such discriminating taste, you know that cats have taste buds as well as taste or flavor preferences.

Cats' sixth sense, Jacobson's organ, and the flehmen response

Imagine having the ability to sense flavor and scent! Humans can't, but many animals can, including cats, dogs, horses, elephants, giraffes, goats, cattle, pigs, lizards, snakes, and some monkeys.

The biological structure that facilitates this powerful tool animals use to seek out food and mates is called the Jacobson's organ, or vomeronasal organ_._ Connecting the mouth to the nasal passage, the Jacobson's organ resides on the roof of your cat's mouth and allows her to "taste-smell" the aromas of food and pheromones in her environment.

Cats have 30 different receptors in this organ, compared to nine in dogs. And if you already thought cats were mysterious, the process by which she can inhale aroma through her tongue seems like magic. Her lips curl slightly as she holds her mouth open, then rubs her tongue on the roof of her mouth. Some symbiosis of the mouth, nose, and Jacobson's organ allow her to sense the essence of the flavor and scent. You have most likely seen this in action at least once a day. Dubbed the flehmen response, AKA cat stinky face, it's built-in data analysis!

In the flehmen response, two small saliva ducts known as the nasopalatine canals located on the roof of the cat's mouth behind the incisors open up, then go through the roof of the mouth and connect with the Jacobson's organ, which functions almost as an auxiliary olfactory bulb. It's not automatic like breathing, but the cat voluntarily brings the odor up to the Jacobson's organ. Some scientists believe it's something between the sense of smell and taste; that is, a sixth sense!

Cute ginger cat licking his face next to a white food dish.
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Do cats have taste buds?

Cats indeed have taste buds; a measly 470 compared to humans' 9,000. But their lack of taste buds doesn't slow them down. Equipped with a fine-tuned sense of smell and guided by their flehmen response, cats do just fine. Cats also choose food based on its "mouth feel" and whether they experienced a positive post-digestive sensation. And like people, individual cats have unique flavor and texture preferences.

Do cats have flavor preferences?

You'll recognize just how distinct individual cats' food preferences are if you live in a multi-cat household. Some of your cats may like the consistency of smooth pate; others go crazy for chunky stew. One may be wild for salmon, while another adores turkey. Some cats will eat anything, but most have their favorites among chicken, turkey, beef, salmon, tuna, or a medley of seafood. You'll know which animal protein is most appealing to your cat when you experiment with different foods.

Smell

One of the primary ways that cats choose food is with their amazing sense of smell. Along with their whiskers, cats navigate their world through their sense of smell. With 65 million olfactory (scent) receptors (compared to 15 million in humans), their noses guide them in matters of food. Sniffing everything before eating, cats are naturally drawn to a meaty aroma.

Mouthfeel

Cats also choose food that appeals to their individual preference for how it feels in their mouth. How they grasp it and how it feels in their mouth deterimines whether they will eat it, or leave it. Some like soft-textured food in jelly or gravy because it's easier to chew and swallow. Others like loaf-style wet food and dry kibble. If you have a short-muzzle, flat-jaw cat such as a Persian, consider special kibble with a unique shape and size designed to make it easier for them to pick it up with the underside of their tongue.

Positive Post-Digestion Sensation

Cats choose what they like to eat based on how they feel after a meal. They are looking for a positive post-digestion sensation. Much like people, when cats have consumed a meal, depending on the ratio of protein, fat, and carbs, it impacts how they feel when the food starts breaking down in the digestive process. If this ratio, referred to as the Macronutrient Profile or MNP is ideal, it results in a positive post-digestion sensation. Consequently, your cat will like the food and want to eat it again. If the ratio is out of balance, your cat can feel sluggish, or have gastrointestinal upset, and will avoid the food in the future.

Beautiful feline cat eating on a metal bowl. Cute domestic animal.
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Cats' nutritional needs

Whatever diet you choose to feed your cat, commercial or homemade, it needs to offer your cat the correct balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat for optimum health and energy. Amino acids like taurine protect your cat against blindness and heart problems. Other essential fatty acids ensure your cat will have a healthy immune system. An optimal diet further delivers nutrition that supports a healthy urinary tract and prevents periodontal disease. The proper diet will be showcased in a shiny, dandruff-free coat, bright eyes, and healthy skin as well as a happy, purring demeanor. It's a tall order. But with some research and a good grasp of your cat's nutritional requirements, you can design a healthful, delicious diet that your cat would choose himself if he could.

Designing your cat's diet

If you're trying to decide which commercial food is best for your cat, read the ingredients list carefully, and choose a premium brand that meets feline nutritional guidelines as per your veterinarian's advice, contains natural, whole foods, and preferably human-grade ingredients. You'll also want to make sure the food provides your cat with a balance of carbs, protein and fat.

Some people choose to make their cat's food instead of buying it. If you're considering this method, be sure to consult your vet first. They'll be able to tell you what factors to consider given your cat's age, health and dietary needs. Your homemade food will need to balance carbs, protein and fat just like commercial food does, and will need to contain meat as the primary ingredient.