Our canine companions use their sense of taste in combination with their other senses to explore the world around them. Sometimes it seems like dogs will eat anything, from garbage and fecal matter to undigestible items like toys and fabric. And other times dogs may be very picky about their food.
So how do they determine what tastes good to them? Do dogs have taste buds like we do? Why do dogs want to eat things that we would never eat?
Do Dogs Have Taste Buds?
Yes, dogs have taste buds that give them the ability to taste things. Taste buds are found on papillae—small, visible bumps on the tongue. Dogs have about 1700 taste buds, while human mouths have approximately 9000.
Puppies develop their ability to taste after a few weeks of life. This is one of the earlier senses that develops, even before hearing and vision. As dogs mature in age, their number of taste buds decreases, along with a decreased sense of smell, which may play a role in picky eating or decreased appetite.
Each taste bud has an ability to sense all tastes if the flavor is strong enough. Taste buds in different areas on the tongue are slightly more sensitive to certain flavors in comparison to others. Bitter and sour taste buds are located toward the back of the tongue. Salty and sweet taste buds are found toward the front of the tongue.
Dogs have specific taste receptors that are fine-tuned to meats, fats, and meat-related chemicals due to their ancestral diet being primarily comprised of meat. The reduced number of taste buds in dogs as compared to humans may explain their decreased ability to distinguish between subtle flavors, like the differences between types of meat (chicken, pork, or beef) or different berries (strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries).
Dogs also have taste buds that are fine-tuned to water. This ability is also seen in cats and other carnivores, but not in humans. Special taste buds on the tip of a dog’s tongue react to water as they drink and become more sensitive when thirsty or after eating a meal, which encourages them to drink more water.
Dogs’ Taste Buds vs. Their Sense of Smell
Taste is directly linked to smell, and an item’s scent can enhance its taste. The smell of a food item plays a much larger role in how dogs experience the flavor of their food.
Dogs also have a special scent organ along their palate that helps them “taste” through smell. When a dog smells something, they capture molecules that tell them how a food will taste. Dogs can taste without smelling, but not as well as people, due to fewer taste buds. However, their sense of smell is much more defined. They intuitively know when food isn’t safe for consumption by combining their senses of smell and taste.
Can Dogs Taste Spicy, Sweet, Sour, and Salty Food?
Dogs have receptors for the same taste types as humans, including spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty foods. However, dogs never developed the highly tuned salt receptors that humans have. This is a result of their heavily meat-based ancestral diet being naturally high in salt. This meant they did not need to seek additional salt sources in their diet and have less of an affinity for salty foods.
Sweet flavors are especially preferred by dogs, which likely stems from their ancestral diet including wild fruits and vegetables. However, this does not mean that they should overindulge in pet-safe fruits and veggies. Too much sugar is detrimental for dogs, so sweet produce should be offered in moderation. Dogs should not have other sugary human foods.
What Tastes Bad to Dogs?
Dogs generally avoid salty, spicy, sour, or bitter tastes. Many of these may be unsafe to eat. The presence of toxins or spoilage from bacterial contamination will cause food to taste bad to dogs.
This is why many chew-deterrent sprays for dogs include bitter ingredients. Dogs may also reject many medications due to their bitter tastes.
The burning heat from spicy foods is caused by a compound called capsaicin and can cause physical reactions in dogs despite an inability to detect much of the flavor.
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