The other experiments were designed to disentangle the influences of flavor and aroma from nutrition.
"Cats initially selected food based on flavor preferences, but after 'learning' (due to prior exposure) about the nutritional composition of the foods, cats selected foods to reach a particular target balance of protein and fat regardless of added flavors," Hewson-Hughes said.
As a result, some felines actually ate more orange-flavored chow, which had the target protein to fat ratio, than they consumed fish and rabbit-flavored foods without such a precise nutrient ratio.
How cats can detect this ratio remains a complete mystery for now.
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Martha Cline, a veterinarian specializing in clinical nutrition at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital, recently analyzed current feeding practices of cat owners for the upcoming book, "Feline Internal Medicine," directed at animal health care experts. In it she suggests that cats may not be getting enough protein in their diets, per the current National Research Council and Association of American Feed Control Officials guidelines.
"The protein requirement of adult cats to maintain lean body mass is now thought to be higher," according to Cline, who explained that cats fed a high protein diet for 2 months in a study maintained healthy lean body mass, while cats fed moderate and low protein diets did not fare as well.
Still other research finds that domestic cats perceive bitterness at the molecular level, allowing them to detect off ingredients with incredible precision. This could further help to explain why felines so often turn up their noses to particular foods and medicines.
As for why felines seem to go for carb-laden cat treats, it could be that, like junk food for humans, short-term appeal, conditioning and even boredom may come into play. Hewson-Hughes did say that treats can be fine for cats, so long the treats only make up about 10 percent of the cat's daily calorie requirements.
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Orange-flavored cat food will not be coming to stores anytime soon, but the new research does pave the way for different formulations containing the desired protein to fat ratio.
"First and foremost, an ideal cat food should provide complete and balanced nutrition -- providing all the essential nutrients including vitamins, minerals and macronutrients to maintain the health of your cat," Hewson-Hughes said.
"An ideal food needs the right balance of protein and fat, based on the finding of this study, and also needs to be appealing to a cat in terms of flavor, aroma and texture. We still have a lot to learn before we fully understand all the factors that influence food selection in the cat."