Why Can’t Cats Taste Sweet Things?

For years we suspected (and now we know) that cats don't like sweets. Sugar and spice and everything nice? Not so much! Here is why...

Caption here.
Smells good. What is it? By: anton petukhov/Flickr

Did you know cats can’t taste sweet things?

For years it was known — but not truly understood — that domestic cats, along with other members of the feline species, do not like sweets. Sugar and spice and everything nice? Not so much.

Cats have always been known as picky eaters — unlike dogs, who seem to devour just about any food you put before them. (And can you even imagine humans not being enticed by those sugary delights?)

Cats Don’t Have the “Hardware”

In 2005, scientists from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, discovered that a genetic deficiency deletes the sugar detectors on the taste buds of a cat. In other words, cats do not possess the genetic “hardware” needed to taste sweets. Okay, that’s the short version. Good enough for me.

But here’s the longer version, for you science-inclined folks out there: The scientists examined the DNA sequences of six domestic cats. Upon analyzing the two genes responsible for sweetness detection, the researchers discovered that one of those two genes, “Tas1r2,” was missing 247 letters, meaning it lacked the ability to make a crucial protein for tasting sweetness. Got it?

They Need Meat, Not Sweets

According to Scientific American magazine, felines are really only interested in one thing other than a little petting or a nap: meat.

That’s right — unlike dogs, for instance, cats in the wild eat meat exclusively. And your cat would too, if she had a say in the matter.

However, most commercial pet food manufacturers today use corn and other grains in their products — around 20 percent on average, give or take — which partly explains why feline diabetes is so common. Cats’ bodies simply cannot handle all the carbohydrates in those foods.

But My Cat Does Eat Sweets! (And Here’s Why)

It is sad to think that a cat will spend her whole day catching and eating food, yet never top off that meal with a tasty dessert. Personally, sweet treats like ice cream or chocolates are my comfort foods. I cannot fathom a day without some sort of sweet sensations.

Occasionally you might run across a kitty who does eat fruit, cake, ice cream, marshmallows or some other super-sweet food. But that doesn’t mean your cat can actually taste sweetness.

Here are some likely explanations for a cat that does eat sweet things:

  • Could just be the smell. Flavor is about more than taste, after all.
  • Salts or amino acids in the dessert may be attracting the cat.
  • Some other flavor may have your cat’s interest (bitter, savory, fatty…)
  • It’s even possible that your cat enjoys the texture.

We humans, along with most other mammals excluding felines, seem to have it all — five kinds of taste buds! Sour, salty, umami (meatiness), bitter and — yes! — sweet. Yet cats seem to be content with their genetic profile. Their motto is basically “Meat can’t be beat!”

I suppose it is all in what you get accustomed to.

Additional Resources

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19 comments

  1. Debbie Reply

    We have a cat who loves ice cream, but I imagine it’s the dairy that he enjoys. But he enjoys frozen Fruit Bars too–just a taste, of course. Maybe it’s the coldness?

    1. David Deleon Baker Reply

      It’s hard for people to believe that cats just can’t taste that sweetness. But there could be multiple reasons that cats would like Fruit Bars. It’s “special,” different from the normal stuff, it’s cold, it mushes under their teeth, it smells good, it tastes sooo different. Probably tastes great to them even though it doesn’t technically taste sweet.

      I heard from a few people yesterday, when we published this article, who said, “But, but, but, my cat LOVES ice cream!” And so it’s important to remember cats don’t have the “hardware” for tasting sweet, but it doesn’t mean they don’t still love eating ice cream, for so many possible other reasons.

      1. johna'sbirdsittingservice Reply

        They tested 6 cats. I am sorry but that is a terribly small sample. This does not prove anything to me. I have 3 cats and none of them like milk but they all 3 LOVE LOVE LOVE ice cream plus we gave one of them a sucker and she liked it. They just act different when they are given sweet things. I need more proof than this article has to prove they cannot taste sweet things.

  2. Shannon S. Thibodeaux Reply

    I have a cat who is crazy about stealing jolly ranchers, suckers and cinnamon disc candies. I find it hard to believe there is something else in there that she is tasting besides sugar lol. She also likes to eat granulated sugar if it is accidentally spilled on the counter top in the kitchen and such too. So I am a bit skeptical on the idea that she can’t taste sugar.

  3. Seaslave Reply

    RUBBISH! My cat loves the soft fluffy marshmallows. Testing 6 cats is nowhere near enough to produce a scientific result..

    1. Pets Adviser Reply

      Agree that only testing SIX cats seems ridiculous. Other species have been tested, too, with similar results, though.

  4. aslkdfj Reply

    My cat finds the sweet stuff in the pantry. Its the only thing he eats. Brown sugar, candy bars, marshmallows, pies, anything that has sugar in it he will hunt out. I don’t even give him this stuff.

  5. Liza Grant Reply

    My cat likes to eat cumin the spice and olives. I have searched the web and found no other cat who does the same. You can see him here http://youtu.be/1TEGI5F-qko. But my dog dexter loooooves sweets.

  6. Ameretsu Reply

    Wait, so I am hearing that this study was only done on six bloody cats??? Is that true? Seriously? I have been looking at my cat like wtf why are you licking my sugar coated donut and now you’re telling me there is a possibility that she can actually taste it… Ugh… science… fail. Even if in six different breeds of cats they had one set of missing whatever the hell for tasting sugar it doesn’t mean all cat breeds do.

    I mean come on, my cat won’t eat chicken, or tuna, and may nibble a piece of ground beef but forget eggs, but she wants my freaking donut because its different than dry cat food, really??

    1. Pets Adviser Reply

      Sugar isn’t the only thing in a donut. They’re loaded with fat, which would be very tasty for a cat. Here’s a quote from another article:

      “When we first published the data on cats, it got a tremendous amount of publicity and a lot of people saying, ‘My cat likes sweets and you’re wrong,'” said biologist Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Center. “But invariably they liked ice cream or cake, and sweetness was confounded with fat and other things.”

      “In retrospect it seems obvious,” he added. “But it was to my surprise when we found out that this [loss of sweet taste] has happened repeatedly and independently in many species.”

  7. Greg Brown Reply

    Not sure who did this study but they aere WRONG. My cat LOVES sweets of any kind/texture. Ice Cream, Popsicles, Donuts, pudding, so it’s not texture, it’s because he LOVES sweets. He goes crazy when he sees me eating something sweet, and comes right up to me and starts licking it…

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      My cat likes anything I am eating – I think to his mind, if I have it, it has to be better than his food no matter what it is!

    2. Julie Martinez Birmingham Reply

      I get so tired of people debunking scientific research with, “Well my ______ does, so there!” Congratulations. You have the only cat in the world that can taste sweets. Put it on TV, you might get rich. 🙄

      1. Greg Brown Reply

        Your so-called scientific research has told us that a high carb diet is good (WRONG), eggs are BAD (WRONG), Butter is BAD (WRONG), Fat is BAD (WRONG) so you just keep BLINDLY believing the alleged scientific research, and NEVER question anything, I’m sure that will work out well for you…

        1. Melissa Smith Reply

          Hey it’s not my science!

          *eats a candy bar*

          1. Greg Brown Reply

            OOPS sorry.

        2. Julie Martinez Birmingham Reply

          I don’t believe scientific research blindly. I’m sure that your ability to debunk all scientific research is working out great for you. As well as your instinct to assume.

          1. Greg Brown Reply

            Actually it’s not me debunking scientific research, it’s the scientists themselves, which you would know if you really cared about scientific research which apparently you are clueless about and believe ALL scientific research BLINDLY.

      2. John Bison Reply

        What scientific research? I didn’t see a study quoted anywhere.