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Cat food palatability: what makes their food appealing?

Cat food bowl advice

Cats have far fewer taste buds than humans, roughly 500 compared with 9,000.

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A lot of work goes into making food palatable for your cat... and still they may turn their nose up at it! Here's why.

By Dr Hester Mulhall MA, VetMB, MRCVS

Updated on the 12/08/2020, 10:56

If your cat doesn't like a particular type or taste of food, it could be due to its smell, its texture or even a past negative association. But with such choice of cat foods out there, there's surely something for even the fussiest feline, and nearly all of those available have been put together with the specific nutrients that your pet needs at each stage of their life.

What is palatability of food?

Palatability refers to how acceptable a food is in terms of texture, smell and taste. Cats are renowned for being fussy, so certain foods can be more or less appealing to different individuals. Cats also have a particularly developed sense of smell, making this factor even more important in palatability than it would be for other species. Factors such as temperature can affect this, as many cats will not enjoy food that is straight out of the fridge. Warming the food up to body temperature can be a good way to encourage eating, and increases the smell of the food. Feel of food in the mouth can also affect the palatability of cat food.

Palatability can heavily depend on the individual preference of a cat. Often they will favour a diet that they were exposed to as a young kitten. They can also develop negative associations with certain foods, for example if they become startled during a meal. Neophobia and neophilia refer to the fear or like of new things. Some cats are very neophobic and really dislike change, including new diets. Others are neophilic and will enjoy trying new foods.

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Cats may prefer food that humans don't like the look of

Owner perception of what a cat finds palatable is not always accurate. For example, what looks appealing to a cat may look rather unappetising to us and, as such, it is easy to anthropomorphise. Fast eating is not always a good reflection, as some diets are designed to have a longer feeding time, which can be beneficial.

What is a palatability test?

A palatability test examines how keen the target audience are to eat the food. Some of these tests will provide a single diet, often over a period of several days, to look at cat behaviour, whether they choose to eat what is on offer and how much they eat. Other tests will offer a choice between two different diets and will look at the preference of the cats that are trialled.

How do you make cat kibble?

Most cat kibble in the UK is made through an extrusion process. To begin with, the majority of the moisture is removed from the ingredients, which are then mixed together and have some liquid re-added to form a sort of dough. This is then put into an extruder that uses heat and pressure to cook the mixture and push it through cutters of the desired shape and size. These kibble will be dried and are sometimes coated to add more flavour. The next step is to cool down the food and put it in appropriate sealed packaging to help keep it fresh.

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What does cat food taste like?

Cat food will usually be meat- or fish-flavoured. Cats have far fewer taste buds than humans – roughly 500 compared with 9,000. They are able to taste most of the same categories as humans (sour, bitter, salty and umami) apart from the sweet flavour profile, which is absent or very weak in cats. They also have a very strong sense of smell compared with humans, and scent can significantly affect perceived flavour. This means that a cat food is likely to taste quite different to a cat than it does to a person.

Do people taste cat food?

The pet food industry is subject to legal regulations and guidelines, including when it comes to testing the food and ensuring its safety. There are over 50 pieces of relevant legislation in the UK. An example of some of these guidelines are those produced by the European Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association (FEDIAF).

These testing protocols do not include people tasting the food, but cover factors such as testing and analysing the composition and metabolisable energy of a diet. There are also recommendations for minimum and maximum levels of nutrients that should be included in pet food, including those formulated for certain life-stages.

What is the best-tasting cat food?

This depends on the preference of your cat. Some like cat foods that contain meat, whereas others like the flavour of fish. You should definitely not feed your cat a home-made vegetarian or vegan diet, as cats are obligate carnivores, and it is vital to their health that they gain essential amino acids from animal protein. There are now some veggie and vegan diets available that have artificially constructed these essential nutrients, but it will not be possible to find a natural diet that is suitable.

There is also big variety in preference between wet or dry food, with many cats liking access to both at meal times. When it comes to wet foods, you can choose between meat pâtés or meat chunks in gravy or jelly.

Does cat food taste better than dog food?

You should feed a diet that is suitable for a specific species, so cats should not be fed dog food and vice versa. Cat food tends to be higher in protein, fat and certain vitamins and minerals, which can result in a stronger flavour and smell.

When should I see a vet and what should I ask about food palatability for cats?

If you have any questions about your cat’s diet and nutritional requirements, you can ask a veterinary professional. If your cat goes off their food, this could indicate an underlying health problem. As such, you should contact a vet if you are unable to tempt them to eat or they are showing other symptoms.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk