You stand in the cat food aisle debating over the perfect food for your feline friend, fill up their bowl at exactly dinner time, and wait expectantly for their approval. But once again, your cat refuses to eat. Unlike dogs that will eat almost anything, cats have a tendency to be frustratingly picky eaters. They turn their cute little noses up and stubbornly ignore the various foods you so lovingly select.
If your cat is a picky eater, you’ve likely felt the frustration of trying to find a food they will eat. And with so many commercial cat food options, it’s not like you can try them all. The good news is, cats always have a reason for being fussy about their food. And once you figure it out, you have a much better chance at getting your cat to eat.
Here are a few common reasons why cats are picky eaters.
Rule Out Illness
There’s a big difference between you cat being a picky eater and your cat losing their appetite because they’re sick. The problem is, telling the difference isn’t always easy.
A loss of appetite should be considered a serious side effect that could be related to a long list of health concerns. From kidney disease to a UTI, a lack of appetite is often the first noticeable symptom. Before you head back to the store to try yet another kind of cat food, consider whether or not your cat could be sick.
It’s important to look for other symptoms including lethargy, diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting. In some cases, it’s the food itself that is making a cat sick, and that’s why they’re being picky. It’s possible for a cat to be on the same food for months and then all of a sudden have trouble digesting it. If your cat ever refuses food for more than two days in a row, talk to your vet.
Nutrition Matters Most
A study published in Royal Society Open Science suggests cats are picky eaters because they care about nutrition—not just taste. For the study, researchers gave cats three different flavors of food: rabbit, fish, and orange. For the first round, all three foods contained the same nutritional value. Unsurprisingly, the cats liked the fish food the best, the rabbit second best, and the orange-flavored food came in a distant last place.
For the second stage of the experiment, researchers kept the food flavors the same but changed up the nutritional value. They found that cats need a food that has a protein to fat ratio of 1 to .4. When given the options, most of the cats chose the food with that ideal ratio, even though it was orange-flavored. These results suggest the cats could somehow tell which food was better for them, and they decided that high protein mattered more than undesirable flavor.
How cats can tell the nutritional value of food is still unknown, but this experiment suggests that picky eaters could be turning their noses up because they know the offered food doesn’t meet their nutritional standards. Switching to a cat food with high protein and only moderate fat could solve your problem.
New Things? Nah.
Adrian Hewson-Hughes, co-author of the above study, also points out that cats may have a feline version of something called neophobia—a fear or extreme dislike of trying new things. This could explain why your cat absolutely refuses to eat anything besides the same food they’ve had for years. They like what they like, and they’ll always resist change.
Neophobia most likely developed in cats as a method for survival. In the wild, taking a bite out of something new could have disastrous consequences. It’s safer to stick to what they know.
This Doesn’t Taste Right…
Another explanation for your cat’s fussy behavior could have to do with their sensitivity to bitter-tasting foods. A study published in BMC Neuroscience found that domestic cats have two separate bitter taste receptors on their tongues. Through various taste-testing experiments, researchers found those receptors detect a different range of bitter-tasting compounds than their human equivalents. This suggests cats could be more sensitive to certain tastes than we thought. Study co-author, Nancy Rawson, says,
“These insights and future discoveries will be invaluable in formulating appealing food for cats, as well as enhancing the acceptability of their medications.”
If your cat repeatedly rejects a certain kind of food, it could be because of their sensitivity to certain bitter-tasting compounds.
This Doesn’t Feel Right…
Besides nutrition and taste, texture will also play a roll in how much a cat likes (or doesn’t like) their food. Cat food comes in several different varieties including dry, canned, and semi-moist. Just like how people have personal preferences, so do cats.
There’s no real way of knowing exactly why a cat would find all canned food repulsive and dig into a bowl of crunchy kibble. As long as the food they like meets their nutritional requirements, there’s no harm in only eating the same thing. Save yourself the headache and just go with it.
It’s About When, Not What
Before you spend your paycheck on different kinds of cat foods, consider the idea that your cat isn’t picky about what they eat, but when they eat. I think we can all agree that cats have a tendency to be both independent and stubborn. They do what they want, when they want. If your cat walks away from their freshly filled bowl at mealtimes, it could be because they’re not yet ready to eat.
The taste, texture, and nutritional value are all fine, but if the timing isn’t right, your cat won’t want to chow down. Why should our cats follow the schedules we choose for them? We’re the ones with the opposable thumbs, but cats can make their own decisions.
Try leaving your cat’s food out longer than usual to see if your finicky feline decides to come back to their bowl at a later time. If you let them take charge of their own schedule, you might solve your picky eater problem without having to buy all new cat food.
If your cat repeatedly refuses their food, it will take trial and error to solve the mystery of their persnickety taste buds. Make sure to offer foods that provide a complete and balanced nutrition, and then go from there. If all else fails, consult a veterinarian to make sure there isn’t a health-related reason behind your cat’s picky eating.