Eating Behavior of Dogs & Cats

Pet owners know: dogs will eat almost anything but cats are a little more finicky. The question is… why?

Dogs and cats belong to the Carnivora family which also includes hyenas, bears, seals, and weasels. Some animals in this family, such as bears, are omnivores, eating both plant and animal food. Other animals such as cats and seals require meat for survival. Dogs are in the middle of this spectrum.

How Dogs Eat
The dog’s jaws and teeth, while adapted for hunting animals, are hinged in a way that also allows for prolonged chewing of plant or bone material. The taste buds of dogs respond to amino acids and other compounds characteristic of flesh (meat), but they also respond to “fruity or sweet” compounds found in plants.

Big Meals
Similar to the wolf, dogs can consume large meals at a single sitting. Presumably this trait adapted from eating large prey, while competing with other pack members. A number of modern dog breeds still retain the desire to gorge and are more likely to overeat. These include breeds like Labrador Retrievers, Beagles, Cocker Spaniels and Shetland Sheepdogs. If that sounds like your dog, you need to monitor meal times and measure portions to avoid unhealthy weight gain or regurgitation of unchewed food.

The long history of the dog’s domestication has lead to a wide diversity of eating habits and there are other breeds such as Greyhounds, Fox Terriers, Boxers and Salukis, that don’t gorge as much and therefore it’s easier to control their food consumption.

Same or Different: All Fine
Dogs are much more willing to try a wide variety of “new” foods, than are most other species including the cat. Dogs are also unlikely to develop an aversion to foods that have made them ill in the past. Basically, dogs are preprogrammed to eat a wide variety of foods, but they will still be content to eat the same food every day. It’s fine to feed the same food to your dog every day, or you can add new flavors to their diet by rotating to different flavors (usually meat sources) of food. You can spice up their diet with treats too – just not too many!

Wolf ‘Puppy’
Cute! Yes, but beware! At seven months old, this young European wolf will look almost like an adult wolf. Around this time, they will begin hunting with the rest of the pack for dinner!

Wolves can eat every 5-6 hours when there is plenty of food available, or they can fast and live on scraps for 2 weeks when there is less food around.

How Cats Eat
The domestic cat is a descendant of the African wildcat, Felis lybica, and was a more specialized predator than the wolf. The cat was a solitary hunter, not a co-operative hunter. The cat’s jaws and teeth are designed for small prey, especially small mammals.

During their evolution, cats become adapted to eating many small meals in a day. If allowed to eat free choice, most cats will still eat many small meals during the day and limit their food consumption so they don’t over eat.

Must Eat Meat
The cat is an obligatory carnivore, meaning through thousands of years of evolution the cat has lost the ability to adapt to a diet that doesn’t contain (or mimic) meat or fish. The cat’s higher requirement for protein and niacin, and its requirement for the amino acids taurine and arginine, reflect its strict carnivore past. The cat cannot manufacture taurine in its body, unlike dogs and people, because the cat has eaten taurine-rich meat for millennia and historically didn’t need to manufacture it.

The range of food flavors the cat can taste is quite narrow, reflecting the narrow range of animals they hunted and  consumed. The cat’s taste system is unresponsive to both sugars and salt, but they are highly responsive to amino acids, nucleotides and other compounds characteristic of specific meats and fish.

Cats in the wild rely on instinct and past experience to tell them which foods are ‘safe’ and nutritious to eat. The cat is preprogrammed to eat a wide variety of foods from within the narrow range of foods that have the tastes they recognized as having meaty flavors.

New is Good Too
This preference to eat ‘new’ foods is probably a built-in genetic adaptation to avoid a nutritional deficiency. Sometimes called the ‘novelty effect,’ if given a choice between two foods, cats will eat the ‘new food’ if the smell, and taste, agrees with their preprogrammed instinct telling them that food is ‘safe.’

With dry cat foods, natural flavors are added to give the kibble a wide variety of meaty tastes or ‘notes.’ This is why you can feed the same dry food for an extended period of time without your cat rejecting it.

With canned foods, this trait of wanting different tastes is satisfied by having a variety of different meat flavors. You just buy different types of food and rotate them.

Unlike dogs, cats can form a rapid aversion to a food that has made them ill. This can be a problem for domestic cat parents due to food association: when an illness closely follows the consumption of a food, even if the food was not the cause of the illness, the cat may develop an aversion to that particular food.

Food association and the novelty effect are important facts to remember when your cat has suddenly quit eating their  favorite brand of food. Often the food gets blamed, when in most cases it is a cat just being a cat.

Kittens will strongly identify with the food their mother was consuming, but with time they have a strong desire to seek out new foods. This means kittens will readily wean onto the same food their mother eats, but later they can be easily changed to a different food.

All this evolutionary and scientific proof to tell you something you already knew; dogs eat almost anything, but cats are finicky.


Breeding with ‘Wild Cats’ in the 21st Century!
The Bengal cat is a distinct, unique breed of spotted domestic cat derived from the ancestral crossing of a domestic cat such as an Abyssinian, American Shorthair, Burmese or Egyptian Mau with an Asian Leopard Cat. Due to this breeding, the domestic Bengal inherited an exotic and stunningly wild spotted marking. From approximately 3 weeks of age until about 16 weeks, kittens display a fuzziness and graying that blurs their markings as a protective camouflage as they would in the wild. These markings can take up to a year to develop into a rich colored coat.

The main credit for this breed is given to Jean Sudgen of the USA. Jean Sudgen crossed a black shorthaired domestic cat with a female Asian Leopard Cat in 1963.

Reference: The Waltham International Symposium 2005 J.W.S. Bradshaw.

Dr. Dave Summers, Pet Valu Nutritionist, holds a Ph.D. in Animal Nutrition from the University of Edmonton. “Doc” has worked in the pet industry for 25 years, developing innovative pet foods and consulting about pet nutrition. As a Nutritionist and also as a pet parent to 1-year-old Bailey, pets come first to Doc.

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