In talking about cat food with cat owners like I do most days, the most common point I hear is that “my cat is so finicky.” And, cat parents, you say it as if your cat is the only one that’s finicky. Most every cat is finicky. They must think they have a license to be.
I read an interesting white paper by Dr. Nancy Rawson, a Ph.D. scientist with AFB International (http://afbinternational.com/pdf/Finicky_Cats.pdf). The company produces palatants for the pet food industry.
The purpose of a palatant is to optimize the animal’s response to the food. Make it pass the sniff test. Palatants can be wet or dry, applied topically or baked in, and used alone or in concert with fats. However they’re used, they’re largely responsible for the pet’s acceptance of the food. You usually see the palatant listed as “natural flavors” or “animal digest” in the ingredient panel.
As is the case with many aspects of animal husbandry, know one knows for sure why cats are so finicky, but Dr. Rawson made a number of interesting points…mitigating factors, if you will…to suggest that cats aren’t finicky just to be difficult, which is what most of us lay people think.
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must get their nutrients from animal flesh, while dogs are carnivores with diets that resemble that of omnivores. Cats have fewer options. Rawson also points out anatomical and physiological difference 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. For instance, they lack a “sweet gene” a protein in their taste receptors that, if they had it, would enable the cat to perceive sweetness.
They also lack the ability to digest lactose and other dietary sugars, and they have no lactase, an enzyme that breaks down starch, in their saliva. This distinction alone, suggests Rawson, could result in the perception of ‘finickiness’ when compared to our human experience of food.
She also puts forth the possibility that cats aren’t finicky at all, but that we perceive them to be because their food behaviors don’t fit our expectations. She speculatively points the guilty finger at cat owners who can display a certain “hypocrisy” when it comes to their cats behaviors.
“‘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’! Do cat owners secretly wish…their cats acted more like dogs?” Ouch…them’s fightin’ words in some circles, ain’t they?
Dr. Rawson points out another thing that I often think about and talk to cat owners about; free-feeding. My first objection to free-feeding is that it can contribute to obesity, although a relative had a free-fed cat that was lean and mean right up to the end, at 19 years. An exception to the rule, perhaps.
Free-feeding may allow the cat to notice subtle differences it might not note when food availability is limited, like it is in the wild. When food is less available, the cat may be less selective. They take what they can get.
Thus, attempting to please our cats with varied and plentiful food options, we may actually be setting them up to be finicky.
Bob Bamberg has been in the pet supply industry for more than a quarter century, including owning his own feed and grain store in Southeastern Massachusetts, USA. He writes a weekly newspaper column on pet health, nutrition and behaviour and his articles appear at http://hubpages.com/@bobbamberg