Fated feline. Bones found in an ancient Chinese farming village (inset) may belong to descendants of the Near Eastern wildcat (pictured).

Fated feline. Bones found in an ancient Chinese farming village (inset) may belong to descendants of the Near Eastern wildcat (pictured).

(photo) Sonelle, taken at the Johannesburg Zoo, South Africa; (inset) Y.Hu et al., PNAS Early Edition (2013)

Is my cat bitter, or does he just taste that way?

For owners of picky cats, that disdainful sniff—signaling the refusal of yet another Friskies flavor—can be soul-crushing. Some cats are notoriously finicky eaters, but the reasons behind such fussy behavior remain fuzzy. Previous research has shown that cats can’t taste sweet flavors, but little is known about how they perceive bitter tastes. Now, researchers in the pet food industry have identified two bitter taste receptors in domestic cats, which could help explain why some felines are so choosy when it comes to their chow. In the study, published today in BMC Neuroscience, the scientists used cell-based experiments to see how the two cat taste receptors, known as Tas2r38 and Tas2r43, responded to bitter compounds such as phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) and 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP)—which have molecular structures similar to ones in Brussels sprouts and broccoli—as well as aloin (from the aloe plant) and denatonium (used to prevent inadvertent ingestion of some chemicals). When compared with the human versions of these receptors, the researchers found that the cat bitter receptor Tas2r38 was less sensitive to PTC and did not respond to PROP, whereas Tas2r43 was less sensitive to aloin but more sensitive to denatonium, leading the researchers to conclude that cats taste different, and perhaps more narrow, ranges of bitter flavors than humans. The research could help pharmaceutical and pet food manufacturers create compounds that block or inhibit these bitter taste receptors, the team says, potentially leading to more appetizing medicines (if such a thing exists) and foods for our feline companions.