Does Food Taste Different to Cats and Dogs?

Though cats and dogs are the most common household pets in North America, the similarities practically end there. Their needs and preferences for food, water and socialization are quite distinct. Below, Illinois-based cat- and dog-nutrition expert Linda Case and Dr. Trisha Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists reveal some key differences.

Omnivore vs. Carnivore
As cats and dogs were becoming domesticated, they developed according to the food sources available to them. “The evolutionary history of the dog suggests a predilection for a diet that is more omnivorous in nature, while the history of the cat indicates that this species has consumed a purely carnivorous diet throughout its evolutionary development,” explains Case.

Cats evolved into meat-eaters that need a whole lot of protein (about 26 percent of their total caloric intake), but dogs can subsist on a more varied diet (only about 5 percent protein). Joyce says dogs can eat many different foods, but cats would have serious nutritional deficits because they require protein from meat.

Their taste buds differ as well. While both dogs and cats have a high proportion of taste buds that are sensitive to amino acid flavors (or proteins), only dogs respond to sweet foods. This means, for one, that you don’t have to hide that pan of brownies from your cat. “You have to be careful to keep a dog away from chocolate,” says Joyce. “It’s dangerous for them. Cats can’t metabolize it either, but the concern is not the same because they would never eat the massive quantities of it that a dog would.”

Pack Animal vs. Loner
Both dogs and cats become accustomed to eating at specific times, but only dogs seem influenced by the social setting of the meal. “Dogs tend to increase food intake when consuming food in the presence of other dogs in their social group,” says Case. “This process is called social facilitation.” For most dogs, social facilitation causes a moderate increase in interest concerning food, as well as a tendency to eat faster.

Dogs are so prone to the influence of others that even their owners can impact their food choices. In one study summarized by Case, a group of dogs had the choice between a small and a large portion of kibble. Most chose the large. But when their owners were brought in and the dogs watched as they chose the smaller plate, their own choice changed in the second trial, as they chose the tiny serving. A similar experiment used equal portions in two different bowls. Each dog was consistently more interested in whichever bowl its owner preferred.

Joyce adds that cats seem to be emotional eaters. “My clients often tell me that their cats go to the food bowl when they’re happy, like when the owner arrives home.”

Thirst vs. Dry Mouth
While both dogs and cats need an adequate supply of clean water, the definition of “adequate” differs between the two. “Dogs typically consume more water per unit body weight than cats do, and respond more rapidly to mild dehydration by voluntarily increasing their water consumption,” says Case.

Cats’ relatively weak thirst drive is attributed to their evolution from a desert-dwelling species. As a result of low water consumption, cats produce more concentrated urine than dogs, which helps to conserve the little water they do take in. However, it also leaves them at greater risk for bladder stones, rock-like deposits that can interfere with their ability to urinate, causing symptoms like blood in the urine and passing urine outside of the litter box.

One Meal a Day vs. Many
“Cats are natural grazers,” says Joyce, noting that it’s more common for cats to be on free-feed diets than dogs. The reason for this may be partly a function of anatomy. While the stomach of each animal acts as a reservoir for the body, allowing food to be ingested as a meal rather than continuously throughout the day, a dog’s stomach expands more readily. “The proximal section of the stomach is capable of expansion, a function that is assumed to be of greater importance for dogs, which tend to eat large meals at a given time,” says Case.

Keeping the above differences in mind, pet owners can rest assured that they are adhering to what nature intended -- and continues to insist on.

Organizations That Feed Cats When Owners Can’t

In difficult times, cat lovers all over the country have separately rallied to make sure that no cat is left unfed. Grassroots pet food banks have sprung up in most regions, with local humane societies offering contact information for needy or infirm pet owners in their communities. Below, organizers and satisfied customers tell their stories and share tips on how to receive food bank services.

The Central Florida Animal Pantry
When Erica Wilson and her 9-year-old son, Zach, went to a Florida shelter to find a companion for their dog, Brandi, Zach found himself face-to-face with a problem he never knew existed: homeless animals abandoned because their owners couldn’t afford to feed them.

“We knew we needed to do something,” says Wilson. What began as a Cub Scout food drive grew into a full-on food pantry in the spring of 2009, when a distribution location in Longwood, Fla., was donated for their use. They distribute an average of 600 pounds of food a week, much of it donated by major manufacturers.

“We meet people from all walks of life here, from those who’ve struggled all their lives to those who aren’t used to asking for help, but now have no other choice,” says Wilson. The organization also provides food to the disabled and elderly as well.

Tree House Humane Society
When Marcus Newell of Chicago, Ill., lost his job four years ago, he wasn’t sure how he was going to continue to support himself and his family -- let alone his two cats, Diamond and Whiskers. He mentioned his concerns to a worker at public assistance, who told him about Tree House Humane Society, a no-kill cat shelter in Chicago. Tree House also runs a pet food pantry to make food available to owners who might otherwise no longer be able to adequately provide for their companion animals.

Newell has been delighted with the quality and quantity of the food Tree House has provided, and also with the time he’s gotten to spend with other cats when he picks up his supplies.

Save Our Pets Food Bank
In 2008, former CEO Ann King of Atlanta, Ga., had a 30,000-square-foot building and a dream. She wanted to fill her warehouse with pet food and hand it out to people who could no longer afford to feed their animals. King approached a local food pantry -- specializing in feeding people -- and asked if they could help her to distribute her wares. “They told me they didn’t think there was a need, which I knew was crazy,” says King.

King got going without them, and in the last three years her food bank has helped over 700 families and 200 rescue organizations and shelters in Georgia through donations from independent supporters and pet food manufacturers alike.

“I hear stories about the lengths people have gone to try to keep their pets with them,” says King. “One woman was living in her car with her two cats. We helped her feed them, and eventually to find housing that accepted pets. Meeting our clients makes me feel grateful.”

Getting Help

  • Locate a pet food pantry near you by calling your local humane society for contact information.
  • Make sure your pet is spayed or neutered before applying, as many banks make this a requirement for membership. They will connect you to low-cost spay and neuter options if your pet has never been fixed.
  • Provide proof of income (or lack thereof). While the income caps at different pantries vary, most require some type of proof of financial hardship, be that a copy of your latest income tax return, a copy of your most recent pay stub, or papers like a social security reward letter or a disability check stub.

How to Select Cat Food

When perusing the pet food aisle at your local store, what criteria do you use to select your cat’s meals? An Ipsos poll conducted last October surveyed pet owners on this very issue. Over 1,000 randomly selected adults, serving as a nationally representative sample, were interviewed online to determine how they select pet food. See how your own decision-making process rates in comparison to that of the survey respondents.

How Americans Choose Cat Food
Based on the survey results, Americans consider four primary factors when purchasing food for their cat or dog.

1. Listen to the experts. Thirty-six percent of pet owners cite personal recommendations from trusted sources, such as veterinarians, as the most important factor of diet selection.

2. Read labels.
Thirty percent rank ingredients as the most important criteria when selecting food. “If you pick up a bag of pet food and you see a vegetable-based protein (glutens) in the top few ingredients, it’s time to keep moving down the aisle,” says Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who is also a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council. “High-quality foods are made with animal-based proteins and refined meals.”

3. Invest in your pet.
Nearly 25 percent rank price as a deciding factor. But good deals may not be all that you’ve bargained for. “The ‘least cost’ formulation could certainly explain the finickiness of many animals,” says Nelson. “If a company is scrimping on the cost of the food, they’re likely to leave out -- or at least decrease the level included -- of something that would greatly enhance palatability, as it is likely to cost the most to add.”

4. Consider your cat’s age.
Only 11 percent of U.S. pet owners take their pet’s age into consideration when determining which formula to feed their pet. “I always tell my patients that healthy checkups start on the inside,” says Nelson, who encourages feeding pets a high-quality diet that is specific to an animal’s age.

What Is Your Cat’s Stage of Life?

It’s important to consider the stages of life for cats when deciding on your choice of pet food. “Diet requirements -- including protein levels, calories and vitamins and minerals -- vary over the life of a pet,” says Nelson. “In turn, an animal’s needs change as it grows from a kitten to an adult into a senior.”

Nelson shares these basic guidelines:

  • One to 12 months Kitten formula at this stage should include DHA for brain and vision development. Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical service veterinarian, explains that DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. “The benefits of a diet rich in DHA starts in the womb, much like pregnant women taking prenatal vitamins,” says Dicke.
  • One to 7 years Adult-formula dry cat foods should have crunchy kibbles to help keep teeth clean and tartar free. They should also contain a balanced omega 6-to-3 ratio for healthy skin and coat.
  • Seven years and older A senior formula with L-carnitine helps burn fat and keeps muscles lean. L-carnitine is a vitamin-like compound that helps turn fat into energy. Losing weight can mean losing muscle as well as fat, but adding L-carnitine to a diet helps overweight cats maintain muscle and lose fat. Weight loss diets may also feature enhanced levels of vitamin A to reduce weight regain.

Top Feeding Tips From Cat Owners

Dr. Amber Andersen, a Los Angeles veterinarian pursuing a master’s in public health, makes mealtime special for her cats by singing and talking to them while opening their food. “Mealtime should be a great human-to-cat interaction,” she says. It offers you the chance to spend quality time with your cat and to create a cherished routine.

The following tips and stories from cat owners can help you make feeding time special for everyone.

Maintain a Schedule
Andersen sticks to a regular mealtime schedule with her cats. “This way, pets know when to expect their food, and it keeps them from begging at other times,” Andersen explains. Your cat should also learn to wait patiently for its food. “You should be able to take the food away without incident.”

Talk to Your Cat
No matter how eager you are to begin your daily routine -- or hop into bed after a hectic day -- don’t miss out on the chance to interact with your cat. When cat owner Angela Megasko adopted her orange tabby, Robert, he was was just a “skin and bones” stray. Now, Robert weighs 15 pounds and is lavished with attention at mealtime.

“Our morning routine consists of fresh water and dry food, and it always starts with the same question: ‘Who wants breakfast?’” says Megasko. “The meows and rubs commence. Evenings are wet food, along with a similar question.’”

Introducing both wet and dry food may make it easier to hide medicine in wet morsels if necessary, notes Megasko.

Spread out Meals
Scheduling meals throughout the day and limiting snacking has helped make Kelly Williams’ cats, Jackson, Elliot and Scooby, healthier. “We just recently switched to feeding them on a schedule and picking up the leftovers to prevent them from overindulging all day long,” says Williams. “It has cut down on the amount of vomit and hairballs, and our obese cat lost 3 pounds.”

Morning begins with a hearty scratch behind the ears for the trio, then breakfast with Williams or her father. Williams’ husband sits on the floor with the kitties as the cats eat lunch. “They get a small dinner around the same time we eat dinner to keep them from trying to eat ours,” says Williams. “Before bed, they get just a tiny bit more to keep them out of our bed at night crying, ‘I’m hungry.’”

Create Feeding Stations for Each Cat
Dr. Deb Givin, a Portland, Maine, veterinarian with a cats-only practice, makes sure Bradlee, age 10, and kittens Walter and William have their own personal feeding areas. “Visual separation is important in multi-cat households,” says Givin. This also helps you become aware of each cat’s appetite, which is important in spotting illnesses early.

When you feed your kitty, Givin believes, you sometimes have to balance conflicting needs. For members of the cat species in the wild, hunting and eating are solitary activities. For people, providing food is an act of love, and mealtimes are seen as social events. It takes planning to mesh the two, says Givin.

She feeds wet food to her cats, and then she uses dry food in foraging toys to give them the experience of “hunting” for food. “Put a portion in a foraging toy to amuse your cat while you are at work,” advises Givin. “Hide a cache of dry food around the house so your kitty can ‘hunt.’”

Use dry food as a treat to reward good behavior -- you can try this after trimming your cat’s claws or grooming its coat. A regular snack of dry food in a cat carrier can also create a positive association, Givin says. “A pile of dry kibble in a bowl is boring and may be like an open bag of chips for some cats,” she cautions.

Spending time with your cat before a meal can lead to a better eating experience, since it mimics the hunt leading up to a meal in the wild. “Make mealtimes an event,” says Givin. “Interaction at mealtime is fun.”

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Mealtime in a Multi-cat Home

Whether you currently live in a multi-cat home or are thinking about adopting another pet, consider these common concerns and questions when it comes to their mealtime. Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based emergency veterinarian, weighs in on multi-cat food and whether it’s right for your household.

Is multi-cat food right for my household?
Multi-cat formula is ideal for households with cats between the ages of one and eight who do not have any health problems that require special diets. Cats with diabetes or kidney issues, for example, might need to consume particular types of cat food recommended by veterinarians.

“If you’ve got a kitten, a pregnant cat or a 12-year-old, multi-cat food is not appropriate,” adds Nelson. “Kittens and pregnant cats need more calories, and seniors need less protein,” she explains.

What goes into a good multi-cat food?
Multi-cat food is formulated to meet the nutritional needs of healthy adult cats of all body types. Quality multi-cat foods contain the high protein levels that all cats require, as well as L-carnitine, which helps to burn fat. Vitamin A, found in multi-cat food, reduces the risk of weight gain and boosts energy. Along with vitamin E, it supports your pets’ hair and skin health.

Nelson recommends a multi-cat formula with prebiotics, which promote healthy digestion, as well as beet pulp, which is one of the best fiber sources for cats. “The way beet pulp ferments, it doesn’t produce much gas, and it’s only moderately digestible, so it bulks up stools,” she says. Beet pulp also helps reduce hairballs.

How do I feed multiple cats?
“No matter how great a food is, there can be too much of a good thing,” says Nelson. “Cats will gain weight if they eat more calories than they require.” She adds that, in a typical household with four cats, three of the four are overweight. To feed multiple cats, Dr. Nelson recommends that you …

  • Maintain separate bowls and separate eating areas. Baby gates can keep cats apart during mealtimes if separate rooms are not an option. Separation during feeding also makes it possible to feed a kitten or an ailing cat a special-needs formula while still feeding multi-cat food to the others.
  • Feed cats on a schedule, either two or three times a day. “Give them a specific amount of time to eat, and then remove the bowl,” says Nelson. Your pets will then not spend the day grazing, which can lead to weight gain. This most often happens when one cat makes a habit of grazing from the other’s dish.
  • Mix wet and dry food. “Cats fed higher protein diets, like wet food, tend to be healthier, maintain better weight and have fewer issues with diabetes,” says Nelson. Canned food also has higher water content, which helps stave off urinary issues. Some cats, however, prefer dry food, which also provides appropriate nutrition. If you feed both wet and dry food to your cats, just be sure to keep following daily recommended serving sizes so that you do not overfeed.