Neophobia: Not exactly a catchy buzz-word, but an entertaining one all the same. It was coined to describe the finicky behavior of those who fear tasting new foods. We all know people like this and they’re every host’s worst nightmare (I have four in my immediate family whom I cook for regularly—so I should know). And some animals seem to follow the same pattern—in my experience, at least.
Some pets just seem pickier than others. Perhaps they’re neophobic, too (I can’t get over this fun new word!). Is this trait inherited from their forbearers? Learned while training their humans? The world may never know. But it’s a fun topic of discussion for all us pet parents who’ve suffered the sting of food rejection at dinnertime. And who hasn’t? OK, all of you with Labs can skip this post—you’ll never understand the stress of harboring pickers in your household.
Interestingly, a new study in a large group of identical and fraternal human twins demonstrated an inherited tendency towards neophobia (environmental factors get weeded out when fraternal twins differ in their food-choice traits). So it stands to reason that pets might also inherit such “fears of food.”
Evolutionarily speaking, this seems a stupid mutation. But is it really?
Consider a large colony of feral cats. Everyone in the colony has a great old time behind the local Pizza Hut eating anything they can scrounge from the dumpster. Four out of the forty cats carry the picky gene. They decide the deep-dish meat-lover’s pizza smells nasty. Everyone else eats it and dies. The quartet lives to see another day of cheese and pepperoni and mind-blowing lack of reproductive competition. Woo-hoo!
Still, it’s a serious pain to live with our own pets when they turn up their noses at the sight of a full food bowl. After we’ve been to the organic pet store and bought free-range pork, grass-fed beef and cage-free egg-based delicacies, they still walk away, thoroughly unimpressed by the fare you’ve spent half your paycheck on. It’s depressing.
Even more challenging is the pet who will eat the fancy food contentedly only to decide exactly one week later that she never ever wants you to disgrace her bowl with that foul stuff again. Do you keep offering it to her? Will she get sick if she doesn’t eat for 12, 24, 48, 72 hours? How many exactly? Is she sick now? What if she’s suffering some painful GI disturbance you couldn’t possibly identify? Should you take her to the vet? When? It’s enough to drive even the most non-neurotic owner insane.
The worst is the pet who loves few comestibles and picks like a mockingbird but nonetheless looks like she’s consumed everything in your home but the sofa. I hate these cases. The owners keep dragging her back in for thyroid tests, convinced her metabolism has been possessed by that of a chronically overfed sloth’s. What can I say? Stranger things get screentime in David Lynch movies every year. Who knows how it happens?
Taste, metabolism, immunity, genetics, exercise…they hold their individual physiologic house parties in mysterious ways we may never fathom. At least one part of the picky puzzle’s been jigsawed into place with this human study. But that’s no consolation for the millions of us left goading our loved ones to “Eat, Papa, eat! No one likes a skinny Santa.”