Tubby tabby taste trouble trial transforms traditional thought
July 25, 2005 11:05 AM   Subscribe

New research concludes that cats lack a functional sweet taste receptor, as reported in the new, free-access journal PLoS Genetics. Also: WaPo coverage, and the new family of Public Library of Science journals.
posted by rxrfrx (40 comments total)
In light of this, do cats actually drink discarded antifreeze
because of its sweetness, or do cats just drink from puddles
in general?
posted by the Real Dan at 11:18 AM on July 25, 2005

Does this explain their penchant for licking their ass?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:19 AM on July 25, 2005

What is it about milk that cats like, if it isn't the sweetness?
posted by Rothko at 11:22 AM on July 25, 2005

Hmmm, I dunno about this. One of our cats is nuts for anything sweet, there's nothing about these sweet items that ties them together other than their sugary goodness. Like, she loves jello, but she also loves ice cream. She'll eat the filling from pumpkin pie but she won't eat other similar foods like baked squash. She'll drink your tea if you don't keep an eye on your teacup, but only if it's sweetened, doesn't matter if there's milk or cream in it.
posted by zarah at 11:25 AM on July 25, 2005

What is it about milk that cats like, if it isn't the sweetness?

I heard this on NPR this morning. The author said they enjoy the fat, but not the sweetness.
posted by Moral Animal at 11:30 AM on July 25, 2005

My mother's cat eats cantaloupe. She absolutely loves the stuff. A cat who once belonged to my aunt loved orange marmalade on Saltine crackers.

Do cats have sweet taste receptors? I don't know. Are some cats just insane? Definitely.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:31 AM on July 25, 2005

Are some cats just insane? Definitely.

The author also claims the lack of sweet taste receptors is the reason why most cats are pissy. I know I get cranky when I don't get my sweets...
posted by Moral Animal at 11:33 AM on July 25, 2005

If you don't have it, you can't miss it.
posted by agregoli at 11:34 AM on July 25, 2005

Thanks for the links to the PLoS journals. It's awesome.
posted by OmieWise at 11:36 AM on July 25, 2005

our cat eats red vines and sour patch kids.
posted by thebatmanager at 11:36 AM on July 25, 2005

*Daydreams about an army of genetically-engineered cats who have their sweet-tasting genes activated, and what evolutionary revolution might result*
posted by VulcanMike at 11:43 AM on July 25, 2005

*Daydreams about me being genetically engineered so I can't taste sweets. I'd lose so much weight....*
posted by Moral Animal at 11:46 AM on July 25, 2005

They'd want revenge, for sure...
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:46 AM on July 25, 2005

My Bengal cats (who are only 15/16ths domestic, 1/16th Asian Leopard Cat) won't eat anything other than Meat. They definitely want to smell our food, and then reject it as inedible. Only cooked bird makes them come begging (which, being rare, is still cute behavior).

My parents' fully domestic cats are shameless in their insistence on eating my parents' food. (Luckily for all involved, my parents still consider this cute, and I don't have to live with them.) I had chalked this up to a genetic difference in domestic vs. more wild cats.
posted by Aknaton at 11:55 AM on July 25, 2005

No eyebrows. AND now this. Yup. Cats are evil.
posted by tkchrist at 11:57 AM on July 25, 2005

Hooray for PLoS! Although I wish they had picked a better name than "PLoS."
posted by grouse at 12:09 PM on July 25, 2005

My cats hate all human food, with one exception: Garbonzo beans. They go apeshit over them. Squish will actually try to shove his head in my mouth to get them! They are actually afraid of sweets. They'll take a sniff, scrunch up their faces, turn tail and run!

And yes. Insane. All of them.
posted by zerokey at 12:57 PM on July 25, 2005

I once had a cat that would eat anything he could steal. He once stole a quarter pineapple and gutted it in about three minutes. Of course, if you gave him pineapple, he wouldn't touch it. It had to be stolen.

Another cat loved green peas. She'd go into our garden and eat them off the vine if we didn't put chicken wire up. She also liked dandelion flowers, which was quite handy.
posted by watsondog at 1:03 PM on July 25, 2005

It's a well-established fact that feline behavior includes anything that will discourage humans from figuring out feline behavior. Don't bother looking for a pattern.
posted by ToasT at 1:10 PM on July 25, 2005

So we now know that cats have no taste receptors for sweets, but we have not yet solved the mysteries of the Lick Spot . When are researchers going to focus on the important stuff?
posted by ereshkigal45 at 1:10 PM on July 25, 2005

ToasT nails it!
posted by zarah at 1:11 PM on July 25, 2005

Rothko - What is it about milk that cats like, if it isn't the sweetness?

My guess would be casein - which tastes yummy to cats and glue/paste-eating kids.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 1:41 PM on July 25, 2005

Yup, cats are insane. I'm thinking that maybe they also like/crave salt. We had a cat who would eat ripe, raw tomatos (we had to hide them in the cupboard after picking them from the garden. He also once ate an entire cob (after the corn was off) - that was one of those trips to the vet where I was glad *they* were the ones doing the duty. My other cat loves yogurt, peas, and tea.
posted by dbmcd at 2:11 PM on July 25, 2005

My mother's cat eats cantaloupe.

Cantaloupe and corn on the cob are nearly universal cat favorites. Protein, fat and the usual presence of butter explains the latter, I think, while cantaloupe are rich in potassium.
posted by y2karl at 2:54 PM on July 25, 2005

My cat's breath smells like cat food.
posted by Moral Animal at 3:32 PM on July 25, 2005

My cat prefers watermelon.
posted by Foosnark at 3:50 PM on July 25, 2005

...yes, but can your cat eat a whole one?
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 4:38 PM on July 25, 2005

Our 15 year old black cat loves cantaloupe, apples, tomato sauce, raspberry juice and the sweet malt flavour of Tonic-Lax (aka Laxitone). These foods are all low fat, low protein and high sugar. I call bullshit on the "no sweet taste receptor" hypothesis.
posted by maudlin at 6:39 PM on July 25, 2005

Oh, and she also steals my non-sweetened tea with low fat milk. (As if she needs the caffeine.) She must be picking up on the faint sweetness of the milk.
posted by maudlin at 6:51 PM on July 25, 2005

Odd, the testimonials about sweet-loving cats aside, I thought this was already c.w. about cats. I read it a long time ago in a science article and have been quoting it to people whenever i get a chance, for years. Is there something new in this research that the old didn't cover?
posted by gorgor_balabala at 7:16 PM on July 25, 2005

Well, tomatoes are rich in umami, too, like casein. Not sure about cantaloupes...
posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:31 PM on July 25, 2005

My cat has loves chocolate Tim Horton's doughnuts. He'll meow and beg until you give him some, and then he eats it and purrs for about an hour.
posted by punkrockrat at 7:46 PM on July 25, 2005

gorgor: the new finding is that the sweet-tasting deficiency is probably due to a mangling of the gene that codes for the receptor, not a neurological problem or some other downstream phenomenon.
posted by rxrfrx at 7:55 PM on July 25, 2005

And for the record, my cat won't eat anything other than dry cat food. She likes to sniff and take tentative licks (fruit, cheese, yogurt, meat), but won't ever dig in.
posted by rxrfrx at 7:56 PM on July 25, 2005

My old cat?

Cheetos. But only the outside. Rejected anything else that wasn't a meat product. But she loved Cheetos - she'd lick all the cheese stuff off the outside, then ignore the rest of it. All other human food got a disdainful glare.

But this is the same cat that brought me a mouse stomach. Only the stomach. Don't know what she did with the rest of the mouse. Wow she was insane. And smart. But definitely insane.
posted by spinifex23 at 10:06 PM on July 25, 2005

just because your cats eat all these "sweet" tasting things and enjoy them, doesnt mean they are tasting the same "sweet" you know and love... even without, it would still taste like SOMETHING!
posted by Satapher at 10:35 PM on July 25, 2005

The sample of domestic cats used in the study? Six. The number of cats mentioned in this thread that seem to love sweets? Six. At best, this study is consistent with the hypothesis that the ability to taste sweets is rare in cats, but is pretty damn weak proof that it's universal.

Assume a few mutant moocher cats generations back had the sweet receptor. They probably got a few more calories into their bellies than sweet-eschewing cats and amused their humans (who may have also have taken better care of them than cats who only ate meat), so they passed on their mutant genes. The percentage of cats who love sweets is probably small enough to be missed by a six cat sample, but large enough to be remarked on by several people in this thread.

I just remembered one more treat my cat loves -- sorbet, which is just water, sugar and fruit flavour. When she smells it from another room, she'll come dashing in to beg for the last few drops. She won't go near cold orange juice or pop (probably too acid for her), so it's not just a matter of craving cold liquids.
posted by maudlin at 11:18 PM on July 25, 2005

Ack! That first paragraph should end "At best, this study is consistent with the hypothesis that the ability to taste sweets is rare in cats, but is pretty damn weak proof that it's universally absent."
posted by maudlin at 11:22 PM on July 25, 2005

As far as identifying whether there's a portion of cats who can taste sweet things, the sugar water/plain water preference test would be a much simpler way of screening, say, 500 cats. As far as identifying a nonsense mutation in the only known sweet receptor... I'd think 6 unrelated cats is enough. That's not the sort of thing I'd expect to find in, say, 60% of a population.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:43 AM on July 26, 2005

If the original cat population lacks the sweet receptor, and the appetite for sweets is the relatively rare mutation (say, one cat out of a hundred), I think a sample of six could easily miss the mutie cats.

I was thinking about the sugar water test last night and tried it out on my cat this morning. I made up one bowl of fresh, cold water, one bowl of cold, slightly sweet water, and one bowl of cold, slightly salty water (about three tablespoons of water each). I used salty water as well as sweet and plain in case she had some preference for any taste over basic Toronto tap water taste. You might also think a carnivore would prefer salty flavours given the salt content of blood.

She came running when I was prepping everything because she's a cold water fiend, especially in this weather. She sniffed at all three, moving back and forth several times, then after a few licks of plain water, started gulping the sweet water. After about 15 seconds of sweet, she drank some plain for about 5 seconds, then back to sweet for about 5 seconds, salty for about 5, then moved back to the sweet water for another 10 seconds, plain for 5, then sweet again for 10, nearly draining the sweet bowl dry before she left.

It's a quick and dirty test with only one cat, but when she was served cold water in the same type of bowl I always use for her, she spent most of the time choosing slightly sweet over fresh. She spent a fair bit of time with the fresh water, but barely touched the salty water. The time she spent with sweet water is consistent with her love of apples, cantaloupe, fruit sorbet, raspberry juice, tomato sauce and Tonic-Lax. She's still an obligate carnivore who craves and requires meat. She still dives into her nightly portion of canned food and begs for the liver whenever I prepare roast chicken. If I put out a plate of liver and a plate of cantaloupe, I'm pretty sure she would choose liver almost every time. But she does seem to crave sweet treats as part of her diet.
posted by maudlin at 6:19 AM on July 26, 2005

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