My Finicky Feline; Why Cats are such Picky Eaters (and how you can help them!)

( 6 mins read)

Trying to feed your finicky feline can be very frustrating for you and your furry friend. Most animals, including dogs, will eat just about anything, even if it isn’t food! Understanding why some cats can be so selective can help take the anxiety out of mealtime and lead to a happier, healthier household.

Part 1: How Biology Affects your Cat’s Meal Preferences

Cats are carnivores and eat only meat. Although dogs have evolved to become omnivores, eating plants and meat, cats were domesticated more recently than dogs, only about 9000 years ago, and remain strict carnivores.   

Nature has given cats three primary features that ensure they remain firmly in the carnivore camp, even today.

  1. Anatomical features

Cats have long, sharp claws and canine teeth with small incisors and molars ideal for hunting prey and stripping meat from bones. They also have very short gastrointestinal tracts designed to digest meat quickly.

  1. Nutritional features

Cats are used to hunting often throughout the day, eating small, frequent meals. They have very high dietary protein and amino acid requirements. 

  1. Physiological features

Because cats lack certain enzymes, they need to acquire specific nutrients through dietary animal sources, including Vitamin A, niacin, taurine and arachidonic acid.

Five Reasons Cats Choose or Reject a Particular food

A critical factor that will affect your cat’s appetite is the palatability of its diet; in other words, how appetizing it perceives its food to be. Studies have shown that cats will choose a more appealing diet over a more nutritious or balanced one, the same way people favour fatty foods that taste great even when they’re not good for us. Cats generally choose their food using five criteria:

1) Taste

  • Cats have fewer taste buds (<500) compared to dogs (about 1,700) or humans (about 10,000), so they are less sensitive to taste compared to other species.
  • Despite that lower sensitivity, however, they will reject bitter foods.
  • Cats lack sweet taste receptors and do not appreciate sweet foods like we do.
  • One fascinating fun fact is that cats are sensitive to the taste of water and can be quite picky about their water source.

2) Odour

  • To compensate for their weak sense of taste, cats use their heightened sense of smell to determine if a particular morsel is worth eating. A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times that of humans, making the odour of food a significant factor for them when choosing food.
  • Cats have a unique organ called the Vomeronasal Organ (VNO) located on the roof of their mouth. The VNO connects to both the nose and mouth.
  • A cat’s decision to taste food comes from the collective use of the mouth, nose and VNO.

The next  three factors are very individual but likely play a role in your cat’s food preferences:

3) Shape – Many cats like star-shaped kibbles, but some prefer round kibbles; to some cats, the kibble’s shape is irrelevant.

4) Texture – The preference for dry food versus wet food often comes down to texture. Some kitties like the crunch factor and others don't care.

5) Mouthfeel – Mouthfeel is the sensation of food in the cat’s mouth, including whether or not it causes discomfort or pain.  Older cats with dental disease that are used to eating dry food will often appreciate you adding warm water to their dry to improve the mouthfeel on their sensitive teeth.

Learning which shape, texture and mouthfeel your cat prefers is simply a matter of trial and error.

Part 2:  How You Can Make Your Cat’s Meals More Appetizing

You can learn how to help make your feline's food more palatable by understanding three things about your cat:

1) Understand the animal

A cat's way of life and prior dietary experiences play a role in its food preferences.  For example, if you fed your cat dry food from seven to 23 months of age, it may be less likely to appreciate a switch to canned food later in life.

Your cat’s age is also a factor, as the receptors for smell and taste decline over time. Older cats may need encouragement to make their foods more palatable as they approach their senior years.

Finally, cats will either prefer a novel food ("neophilia") after you’ve fed them a single fare for a long time or reject it ("neophobia”).  We see food rejection more often when a cat is under stress (emotional, environmental or physiological).  It’s always a good idea to introduce new foods under favourable circumstances.

A fascinating fact I have seen in my practice is the concept of "learned food taste aversion." If I say the word "tequila," many of you may already understand where I am going with this as you recall a particular moment of over-indulgence in your youth that renders you tequila-adverse even today. 

If introduced to a new food when feeling ill, cats may try it on Day One and then never touch it again. They associate the taste of the novel food with how sick they feel at that moment, and that aversion can be long-term. I made that mistake once in my practice when I fed my feline patient a prescription renal diet after diagnosing them with chronic kidney disease. I knew the diet would help their kidneys but forgot that they were in unfamiliar surroundings and not feeling well. As you might expect, the poor cat rejected the diet outright. Only introduce new diets or treats when cats are comfortable in their environment and feeling fine.

2) Understand the Signs

Watch your cat before and while it eats. A promising sign that your cat likes what you’ve served is when it paws or bites at its food. A cat enjoying what it’s eating will often have "half-closed eyes" and may lick its nose, protrude its tongue or smack its lips. If it doesn’t like what you’re offering, it may switch its tail back and forth or simply sit and groom, looking quite unimpressed.

3) Understand the Nutritional Considerations

  1. Moisture – cats prefer wet or canned food over dry food. Adding just a little warm water to food will make it more appealing (especially for older kitties).
  2. Protein source and amount – as cats are strict carnivores, it should be no surprise that they prefer their proteins from animal sources over plant sources, like soybean, for example. High protein, low carb diets are more palatable to cats.
  3. Amino Acids – Cats respond positively to several amino acids in their diet, including proline, cysteine, lysine, leucine and histidine. However, some are bitter and less preferred, like phenylalanine and tryptophan. Although you can’t add them to your cat’s food, most food companies include them in the recipe.
  4. Fats – Just like our food, increasing the fat content makes most foods taste better. Adding good fats like salmon oil to wet or dry food will encourage finicky cats to eat.
  5. Sugar and salt – Unlike humans, cats are insensitive to sweet and salt, and adding a shake of either to your cat’s food will either do nothing or could potentially discourage your cat from tasting the food if they are neophobic.
  6. Fibre – Cats (even senior ones) don’t tend to get overly excited about diets high in crude fibre with additions like cellulose. However, choosing food with lower crude fibre may be more palatable but not necessarily better for your kitty. Fibre has many benefits for cats, and sometimes more crude fibre is necessary. Never choose a diet based on the amount of crude fibre alone.
  7. Other additives – Some additives can increase food's palatability, including yeast extract products, choline and some prebiotics. However, you should speak with your veterinarian before routinely adding these products to your cat’s food.

Perhaps my best tip for feeding your cats is to remember that they aren't omnivores like us and have many different preferences and needs regarding diet.  Your veterinarian can help you choose which foods and additives are best for your cat's situation.  Finally, contact your veterinarian immediately if your cat goes a full day without eating. It is not something you should ignore.  

If you’re interested in diving deeper into all things related to pet wellness and behaviour, make sure you subscribe to my podcast!


Dr. Mike

Veterinarian and Pet Wellness Advocate
Fear-Free Certified Elite Level practitioner.
His mission is to encourage pet owners to welcome the responsibility of providing their pets with the very best care possible.