How Pets “Taste” with their Noses

15 March 2021

Dr. Lisa Tager, Scientific Innovations ConsultantBy Lisa R. Tager, Ph.D. 
Scientific Innovations Consultant

Like humans, pets have food preferences based on appearance, odor, taste and texture. While it might seem like taste would be the strongest sense in a pet’s food selection, their sense of taste is actually much less discriminating than humans. In fact, while humans have about 9,000 taste buds, dogs have only about 1,700 and cats only about 500! This does not mean they do not taste well though. They just use different senses to assess different features to form their food preferences.

Canine Taste Buds
Dogs can identify the same four major taste classifications that humans can: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. They also have an additional set of taste buds for sensing water. In fact, aside from humans, most carnivores (cats included) have this extra set of water-sensing taste buds that still exist today thanks to their wild ancestors. These unique receptors are thought to help animals seek out foods with higher water content after eating something sweet or salty to help prevent dehydration.

Feline Taste Buds
Cats only truly identify three of the major taste classifications that humans can: sour, salty and bitter. While cats do have a very minimal amount of weak, sweet-sensing taste buds, many experts believe that cats are the only mammal that lack the ability to truly taste sweet. This is because they are strictly carnivores and do not require carbohydrates as an energy source. From an evolutionary perspective, they never developed a need to taste sweet things. Cats are also a bit more discerning than dogs when it comes to “spoiled” aromas. While a dog may find the strong odor of garbage enticing and worth giving a taste, most cats will avoid eating anything that smells spoiled, an adaptation to protect them from eating spoiled meat in the wild.

Although both dogs and cats only have a fraction of a human’s ability to taste, their sense of smell is much stronger than ours. To compare, humans have about 5-10 million sensory receptors in their noses, but cats have 45-80 million and dogs have about 125-300 million depending on their age, breed and gender.Take a Whiff
It might seem like dogs are not very discerning when it comes to what they choose to eat. One minute they’re begging for your juicy steak and the next they’re rummaging through the garbage for a (not so) tasty snack. The average dog can differentiate between a meat or non-meat-based food just by tasting it. However, force them to distinguish between the subtle flavors of chicken, beef or pork with just their sense of taste, and they likely will not be able to tell which is which. This lack of sensitivity to flavors is due to dogs’ lower count in taste buds, but add in their incredible sense of smell, and they become much better at discerning between different types of meats.

Although both dogs and cats only have a fraction of a human’s ability to taste, their sense of smell is much stronger than ours. To compare, humans have about 5-10 million sensory receptors in their noses, but cats have 45-80 million and dogs have about 125-300 million depending on their age, breed and gender. Because smell and taste are closely related, pets rely on their sense of smell to experience their food.

One Powerful Sniffer
Aside from having more scent receptors than humans, pets also have a uniquely shaped nasal passage that retains scents for longer. They have a special organ, known as the Jacobson’s (vomeronasal) organ, that lies above the palate of their mouth and helps connect and enhance their sense of smell and taste. This explains why most pets are more interested in foods with pungent aromas. Of course, this isn’t true 100% of the time. Pets may choose a food based on appearance or texture rather than aroma. Everybody has preferences!

Aging Snouts
As pets age, it is very common for their senses, such as smell and taste, to decline. Much like aging humans, this can cause a pet to eat less or stop eating altogether because food has lost its sensory appeal. As such, pet food nutritionists and manufacturers can add or increase ingredients in their formulations to make food for senior pets more pungent than those formulated for younger animals. This method of increasing aroma in senior pet foods is the same reason many veterinary and animal nutritionists will recommend very aromatic wet foods or supplements for animals that have stopped eating for any reason. The strong aroma can sometimes increase the appeal of food and entice them to eat again.

Formulating for Smell
When it comes to pet food, specific ingredients give the foodstuff its aroma. In fact, several ingredients in pet food formulation not only provide great nutrition but are also used because of their enticing aroma. Wet foods in particular retain their aroma well due to their water content. However, manufacturers should be sure that the aroma or palatant they pick for their wet food formulation can stand up to the high temperatures of sterilization during packaging.

Kibble and dry treats, on the other hand, do not retain their aromatic qualities as well because they have been dehydrated, decreasing their ability to release aromatic fragrances as easily. So, for dry foods, manufacturers can spray the outside of the kibble with ingredients that provide an appealing scent, such as fats, fermented yeasts, powder and liquid proteins, or meat- and organ-based liquids.

While adding aromas to entice pets may seem simple, there is quite a bit of science behind which ingredients will work best. Research shows that pets prefer mostly savory aromas. Dogs are most often attracted to meaty, fatty, sulfur, roasted and smokey aromas, and cats prefer fatty and protein-rich meaty scents most. Aroma, flavoring and palatant suppliers can make recommendations to manufacturers on the proper type and process for adding aromas to pet foods. Their recommendations will be based on whether the final product is wet, dry, frozen or freeze-dried, as well as how it will be processed, packaged and what the manufacturer is trying to achieve in a final product.

Understanding the importance of smell in pet nutrition is an incredibly helpful tool for manufacturers. The first thing a pet parent often notices when they open a new bag or can of pet food is the aroma; the second thing they notice is how quickly their pet smells it and comes to feast. Understanding how pets use their sense of smell in making food choices is an incredibly effective tool to help manufacturers formulate a product that pets will be attracted to eat, as well as making their products stand out from the competition.

Visit our Formulation page to learn more about developing a pet food product to appeal to pets' powerful snouts or call 800.365.1357 or email info@trouwnutrition.com to begin formulating with Trouw Nutrition experts today.