Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Does Your Cat Sniff New Food?

New research investigates which feline behaviours show that cats find food tasty.

A pretty grey Persian cat with amber eyes and a pink tongue
Photo: FreeBirdPhotos / Shutterstock
There are certain things we can take for granted when feeding the cat: the pitiful miaows that become increasingly strident, the anticipatory purring when you move towards the cat food, and the way the cat wraps herself around your leg as if you’re her best friend ever. But when you put the food down, is there any guarantee she will eat it? 

Cat food manufacturers have teams of cats that work as food testers, to make sure new foods are as tasty as can be. This study, by Aurélie Becques et al (in press) took place at the Panelis Diana Pet Food Division. Here, cats are housed in groups in an indoor environment with access to the outdoors. Two such groups of cats (17 cats in total) took part in this study.

The cats are given free access to kibble for twenty hours of the day, to mimic the most common way of feeding cats in the home. They are fed via a feeding station, which only one cat can enter at a time. The length of time they spend in the station and the amount of food they eat is all measured. A video camera captures their behaviour.

The study investigated feline behaviour when eating a Very Palatable Kibble (VPK) compared to a Less Palatable Kibble. In fact, both kibbles were the same (Royal Canin), but different coatings were applied. The coatings were both made of poultry fat and had the same number of calories, but one was previously shown to be very tasty to cats and the other less so. Both sets of cats had in fact been fed these two foods at some point in the past. 

To further enhance the tastiness of the Very Palatable Kibble, it was mixed with some tuna. This combination was something the cats had not experienced before. It also had the effect of making the VPK slightly less calorie dense.

The cats were given a two day test of each type of food. Since this is a working cat food testing environment, in between the sessions reported here, they were given a different food according to the current rotation.

The results showed that when cats were offered the Very Palatable Kibble, they ate more each day (81g on average compared to 53g). Because cats made different numbers of visits to the feeding station each day, the researchers compared the first three visits and the last visit of each day. With the exception of the last visit on the first day, the cats ate more of the VPK every time they went to the feeding station.

Cats are good at regulating their food intake, and so it is surprising that they ate more calories when fed the VPK. However, since the study only had two days per food, it is possible the cats would have adjusted their food intake over time.

Whether the cat was eating in a sitting or standing position, the speed at which it ate, the length of time from approaching the bowl to starting to eat, and the total amount of licking, was the same for the two foods. Previous research has suggested that licking the lips and grooming the face is associated with finding food tasty, whereas cats lick their nose when they don’t like it so much. The researchers sometimes couldn’t tell whether the cat was licking its lips or its nose, especially at night when it was dark, so this remains a question for future research.

Sniffing behaviour turns out to be an indicator of a new food’s perceived tastiness. On the first day of LPK, the cats spent a lot more time sniffing the food on the first two visits to the feeding station. 

The researchers say, “One may have expected that the novelty of the diet should have caused more sniffing. On the contrary the cats tended to sniff more LPK, a diet that they have already experienced, than VPK that they have previously experienced but without the addition of tuna. The tuna was very odorant and it seemed that this odor was attractive enough to elicit eating in a short lapse of time. On the other hand the longer duration of sniffing the LPK diet may correspond to a hesitation to consume a less palatable diet.”

The researchers say the cat’s behaviour is an indication of how tasty it finds the food. So if you offer a new food and your cat is sniffing at it, it’s probably not a good sign.


Reference
Becques, A., Larose, C., Baron, C., Niceron, C., Feron, C., & Gouat, P. (2014). Behaviour in order to evaluate the palatability of pet food in domestic cats Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 159, 55-61 : 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.07.003

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