A new study says that more than smell or flavor, cats care about the nutritional balance of their kitty cuisine.

By Gillie Houston
Updated May 24, 2017
© Lawrence Marcus

If your cat's cravings have always been a mystery to you, you're probably not alone. Felines have long been known for being notoriously picky eaters, but the reason they turn up their little pink noses at the food in front of them could have nothing to do with taste at all. A new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science suggests that more than smell or flavor, cats care about the nutritional balance of their kitty cuisine.

Researchers in the U.K. and Australia have found that cats have evolved over time to crave food with ideal nutrient ratios. Forget the aroma and texture; what cats really want is the right amount of protein and fat for their breed. Over the course of their experiment, researchers fed their furry test subjects a variety of food flavors and monitored the cats responses to the different tastes and ingredient make-ups. The cats were offered both seemingly cat-friendly flavors, including fish and rabbit, and a less typical orange flavor.

While the kitties were naturally drawn to the fishier flavors at first, over time as the scientists began to manipulate the nutritional makeup of each of the foods, their preferences changed for one surprising reason. "Cats initially selected food based on flavor preferences, but after 'learning' about the nutritional composition of the foods, cats selected foods to reach a particular target balance of protein and fat regardless of flavors," say study lead Adrian Hewson-Hughes.

The report found that cats prefer a protein-to-fat ratio of around 1 to .4—meaning 50 percent of the energy was from fat, and 50 percent was from protein. At the start of the study, when all three flavors contained the same nutritional makeup, cats favored the fish flavor first, with rabbit in second and orange in a distant third. However, after the nutrients were manipulated, leaving orange the only flavor with the preferred protein/fat ratio, many of the cats consumed more of the odd orange flavor than the fish or rabbit.

While the scientists who conducted the study have yet to determine how exactly cats are able to detect these ratios, according to Seeker, prior research has shown that domestic cats can "perceive at the molecular level, allowing them to detect off ingredients with incredible precision." This hyper-sensitivity to taste could account for their ability to somehow sense the protein and fat balance in what they're eating.

"We still have a lot to learn before we fully understand all the factors that influence food selection in the cat," Hewson-Hughes says. But according to the cat-friendly scientist, the ideal food should both have the proper balance of protein in fat, and have an appealing flavor, aroma, and texture—ensuring our four-legged friends get the best of both worlds.