Finicky Cats Explained (Well, Maybe)
I spend 30 hours a week in various pet supply stores talking with pet owners while promoting a brand of pet food. In talking about cat food the most common owner observation I hear is that “my cat is so finicky.”
Most every cat is finicky, and most people just chalk it up to “cats will be cats.” But are cats really finicky by nature, or is the cat’s owner an unwitting enabler, thus making them finicky"
“Moi?” says the owner. “I buy one of each flavor of cat food on the shelf every time I shop. What could possibly be wrong?”
There’s an interesting white paper by Dr. Nancy Rawson, Ph.D., a scientist with AFB International, a company that produces palatants for the pet food industry. The purpose of a palatant, by the way, is to optimize the animal’s response to the food. You usually see the palatant listed as “natural flavor” in the ingredient panel.
A lower quality ingredient that serves as a palatant is listed as “animal digest” in the ingredient panel. Animal digest is slaughterhouse leftovers, that can vary from batch to batch, and that are hydrolyzed and sprayed onto the food. Natural flavors are formulated from recipes and stay consistent.
Palatants can be wet or dry, applied onto the kibble's surface, or cooked into the food, and they can be used alone or with fats. No matter how they’re used, they’re largely responsible for the pet’s acceptance of the food.
No one knows for sure why cats are finicky, but Dr. Rawson made a number of interesting points--mitigating factors, if you will--to suggest that it isn’t the cats’ fault after all, and that maybe they’re not finicky by nature, which is what most of us lay people think.
Because of their unique taurine requirement, cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must get their nutrients from animal flesh because taurine is available exclusively from animal based proteins. Ferrets, by the way, are also obligate carnivores.
Taurine to cats is an essential amino acid, because they’re unable to manufacture it on their own and, thus, must get it from their diet. Most other species can produce their own taurine, an important nutrient, especially for eye and heart health.
So, for one thing, cats have fewer food options. Additionally, Rawson points to anatomical and physiological differences in cats that factor into food acceptability.
She says that the cat’s unique genetic makeup drives distinctive anatomical adaptations, nutritional needs, metabolism and sensory biology. An example of this is their lack a “sweet gene” a protein in their taste receptors that would enable the cat to perceive sweetness.
They also are unable to digest lactose and other dietary sugars, and they have no salivary lactase, an enzyme that breaks down starch. Rawson suggests that this distinction, alone, could result in the perception of ‘finickiness’ when compared to the human food experience.
So how come we’re to blame? Well, Rawson speculates that cats aren’t finicky, but that we perceive them to be. We have certain expectation about food and sometimes the cat’s food expectations aren’t in sync with ours. And we can be hypocritical about it, too.
Rawson says, “‘Cat people’ often report appreciation for cats’ independence, including their ability to fend for themselves during owner absence. Yet when this same independence and lack of owner-directed behavior occurs at feeding time, we call it finicky.”
Dr. Rawson points to the tendency of many cat owners to free-feed, that is, leaving food out all the time. In fact, a common practice I often hear cat owners admit to is feeding canned food once or twice a day, but leaving dry food out all the time.
Rawson says free-feeding may allow the cat to notice subtle differences it might not note when food is limited, as it is in the wild. When food isn’t as readily available, the cat may be less selective. In the wild, after all, they take what they can get.
Thus, in attempting to please our cats with varied and plentiful food options, we may actually be setting them up to be finicky.