Can dogs taste their food?

A spaniel with its teeth around a chew that a human is feeding them

Dogs can distinguish between sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. If you’ve ever watched your dog hurriedly gobble up poop, rocks, or other inedible objects, this might sound unbelievable–and if you’ve ever seen your dog delicately nibble a new food item before spitting it out, it’s probably old news. While we tend to consider our sense of taste as a luxury, taste evolved as an important survival mechanism. If something tastes bad, it might make you sick, not be easily digested, or outright kill you. Puppies develop a sense of taste within a few weeks after being born, helping them gain the nutrients they need to grow before they transition to solid foods.

The Anatomy of the Tongue

Like yours, your dog’s tongue is covered in tiny bumps known as the papillae. These house the taste buds. However, your dog only has about 1700 taste buds, while you boast about 9000. So yes, your sense of taste is about six times more sensitive than your dog’s…which explains a lot!

Your dog’s taste buds can be found not only on their tongue but on the roof and back of their mouth.

Another big difference between you and your dog is the nose. Your dog has approximately 300 million scent receptors in their nose, not to mention pop culture has made the canine sense of smell something legendary. The Jacobson’s organ allows your dog to literally taste through their nose. (If you’ve ever walked past a particularly fragrant Dumpster, you’re probably very grateful not to share this with your dog.)

What is Your Dog's Favorite Flavor?

Taste preferences between dogs can be just as individual as ones between humans, so there’s no clear answer. What we do know is that overall, dogs seem to prefer beef, pork, and lamb to chicken, liver, and horsemeat, and that they like canned food over dry. (Canned food is also much smellier–remember, smell is an important part of taste for your dog.) But flavor isn’t the only factor for your dog; a study found that their sleeping habits, relationship with you, and the content of their regular meals all impact their preferences.

While your dog is classified as an omnivore, their wild ancestors are thought to have primarily consumed meat, with miscellaneous fruits and vegetables making up approximately 20 percent of their diet. Raw meat is naturally high in sodium, so dogs never evolved salt receptors as acutely as we did. Instead, their taste receptors are attuned to meat, fat, and meat-related chemicals–and if you’ve ever wondered why your dog loves peanut butter, it’s because peanut butter has proteins and fats that make it smell similarly to caramelized meat.

Your dog may also display a slight preference for sweets. Furanoel, a chemical found in fruits (and tomatoes), triggers the sweet receptors. Wild dogs most likely supplemented their diet of small prey animals with fruits lying around. Keep an eye on your pup, though–sugar is just as bad for their teeth as it is ours, and many fruits are outright toxic to dogs.

Finally, look at the tip of your dog’s tongue. Notice how it curls when they lap up water. This area contains specific taste buds for water–and if you’re tempted to slosh some water around in your mouth to see if you can figure out what your dog is tasting, don’t bother. Dogs, cats, and other carnivores have receptors for water, but humans lack them. These taste buds are active all the time, but grow more sensitive after your dog has eaten something salty or sugary, so if you ever see your dog gulping down water after a big meal, they may not just be thirsty–the water tastes great!

How Do Bitter Sprays Work?

Bitter sprays operate under the assumption that your dog dislikes bitter tastes and will naturally avoid them. However, plenty of dog owners report spraying down the furniture legs, standing back, and watching their dog go to town on the wood–so, like everything else about taste preferences, effectiveness varies.

In the long run, training your dog to leave your furniture and rugs alone is more effective. While your dog is learning, manage their environment and remove tempting objects from their vicinity–it’s much easier to break a habit and redirect them to their own toys if they don’t get a chance to practice unwanted behaviors!

Is My Dog a Picky Eater?

Maybe. But that’s a big maybe.

As we’ve covered already, your dog may have stronger taste preferences than most. Some dogs are naturally more nervous than others, and stress can certainly impact appetite. That sensitive nose can cause them to reject one food item but accept another. And some dog breeds, such as poodles, have a reputation for being fussy over their food or only eating when hungry.

Age can decrease your dog’s appetite, as can a sneaky health issue. Pet food companies change formulas periodically and your dog may object. Your dog may also have associated some stomach upset with their food and be avoiding it out of caution.

However, if there are no external causes, picky eating often indicates that your dog has learned that if they wait long enough, you’ll swap their food out for something else or add scraps to the bowl. If your dog won’t eat and the vet has cleared them, try putting the bowl down for 15 to 20 minutes, then taking it away after. The routine helps your dog learn to eat when it’s time.

About the Author

A picture of Melody smiling towards the camera
Melody Lee
Contributing Writer

Melody Lee is a contributing writer for Gentle Beast, and is a CPDT-KA dog trainer. She lives in Manhattan with two feral cats, Littlepip and Alphonse, that tolerate her clicker training attempts. One day, her cats might let her adopt a dog of her own.

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