What does my cat taste?

Both humans and cats have taste buds, containing taste receptors, on their tongues.  Taste receptors can also be found outside the mouth:  in the nose, esophagus, stomach, trachea. However, the feline gourmet has a different gustatory experience than a human does.

Cat’s don’t have a sweet tooth

While we humans have thousands (2,000 – 10,000) of taste buds on our tongues, our cats are thought to have about 470.  Both humans and cats have taste receptors that detect salt, sour, bitter, and umami (savory). 

Cats, however, do not taste sweet things – they lack the proper genetic material to code for sweet receptors.


Quality Control

On the other hand, cats have taste receptors that detect the amino acids that make up the proteins in the meat they eat. This is the umami taste – cats are sensitive to lysine, proline, alanine among other amino acids. Cats are what we call “ obligate carnivores” meaning they are designed to eat primarily protein-rich meat. Being able to taste amino acids allows them to evaluate the nutritional quality of the food they eat – is it a good source of protein?


Bitterness was long thought to be useful to animals that consume plants, alerting them to poisons in plants. Although cats are designed to live on a diet of meat, they are sensitive to bitter tastes and have about 12 different “bitter” taste receptors.  (Humans are thought to have 25). The Human biology of taste

Being sensitive to bitter flavors can tell the cat about potentially poisonous plant food eaten by its prey as well as the freshness of the meat it’s eating. When proteins decay, bitter substances are produced that not only activate the cat’s bitter receptors but block the cat’s amino acid taste receptors. This warns the cat away from eating spoiled meat. A solitary hunter, the cat cannot risk becoming sick by eating spoiled meat – it will not be able to hunt and will starve.

The Taste of Water

Cats also have receptors on their tongues that let them know when they are drinking water – they can actually taste it!  These water receptors are particularly sensitive to things dissolved in water that make it salty, sour or bitter.

So… What does this mean for the cat guardian?

  • sometimes cats won’t eat canned food from refrigerator – perhaps proteins are starting to break down causing the food to be bitter
  • many medications are bitter which can make them hard to hide in cat food – compounding pharmacies can make specially flavored tablets flavors that mask or block the bitterness in your cat’s medication
  • picky eater? try warming your cat’s food to enhance the aroma: your cat’s awesome sense of smell AND taste receptors in the nasal cavity may just stimulate his appetite
  • Filtering water may help remove dissolved substances in tap water and make it more palatable to your cat



  • cats can taste adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy source that powers every living cell (ATP is found in meat)
  • If your cat likes ice cream and icing, it is most likely the fat that she values, not the sweetness, which she can’t taste
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