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DogWorrd.Gom • September 2009



Why dogs eat strange things and other interesting facts about the canine sense of taste.

S usan ran to catch up with Scooter, her Norwich Terrier, as he

trotted proudly along the hiking trail with a greenish-brown

object in his mouth. "What do you have?" she demanded.

Sensing that Susan was going to take his prize away, Scooter stopped and began munching the clump of horse manure as fast as he could. Susan fought a losing battle as she tried to pick the slimy pieces of half-digested hay out of her dog's mouth. "Yuck! I can't believe you like the taste of that stuff!" Susan exclaimed as she wiped her hands on her jeans. Dogs have incredibly flexible food preferences. After all, they are adaptable carnivores that evolved over approximately 100,000 years eating the refuse of human civilization. If they couldn't catch a rat, they could always scavenge bits of creatures killed by humans or other animals. But what makes a dog gulp down rotten goose eggs with a delighted grin on its face (often followed by a sulfurous burp), yet turn its head awayft-oma dog food advertised as "specially formu- lated for the discriminating dog?"

Bud behavior

It starts with the taste buds. Unlike humans, who have 9,000 taste buds, dogs have only 1,700. However, a dog's super-acute sense of smell likely compensates for its relative dearth of taste buds. As anyone who has suffered a cold knows, the ability to smell is an important part of being able to taste. Dogs' taste buds sense the five universally recognized tastes: salt, acid, bitter, sweet and savory. Different taste buds are localized to different areas of the tongue and throat. The front two-thirds of the tongue tastes saltiness, the back one-third senses bitter substances and the pharynx (the part of the throat that leads to the esophagus) and larynx (the part of the throat that leads to the trachea) identify sweetness. Taste buds for acidic and savory fla- vors are distributed all over the tongue.

The taste buds are sensory receptors made up of clumps of cells that have special surface molecules. Each cell senses just one type of taste. The taste buds that sense salt and acid have channels in the cell mem- brane through which salts and acids travel from the Dogs enjoy variety in their

cell's outside to its inside, Buds that .sense bitter, sweet and savory tastes have recep- tors on their surfaces - small

diets-an instinct that likely motivated them to seek out multiple food sources In the wild.


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proteins that clamp on to taste molecules and transport them across the cell membrane to the inside of the cell. Once the flavor molecule is inside the cell, serotonin, a message molecule known as a neurotransmitter, is secreted by the cell. Sero- tonin triggers one of three sensory nerves - the facial, glossopharyn- geal or vagus nerves - depending on which part of the tongue and mouth the taste bud resides. The nerve sends messages to the brain where the specific taste is recorded. Information regarding the tbod's taste and smell is processed, along with any memories or associations the dog has of eating the food in the past, to provide an overall posi- tive or negative experience of eating. For example, if an ill dog experiences nausea immediately after eating fish, it might refuse to eat fish for weeks or months afterward because of the negative association. Likewise, if a puppy is given lots of sweet doggie junk- food treats, it might prefer the taste

September 2009 •

Dog World


of sweets for the rest of its life, espe- cially if it is occasionally rewarded for good behavior with a sweet treat.

What tastes mean

Dogs have a special love for sweet foods. This is in contrast to cats, which do not have taste buds that detect sweetness {not surprising because they are obligate carnivores, meaning that the majority of their diet must consist of meat). To dogs, sweel taste might indicate a highly acceptable, energy-rich food source - possibly a survival mech- anism inherited from their ancestors.

According to Nicola Ackerman, BSc, RVN, Cert. SAN, in her hook Companion Animal Nutrition (Butter- worth-Heinemann, 200S), scientists have demonstrated that female dogs enjoy sweet foods more than male

dogs, perhaps because of the impor- tance of providing enough energy to support a litter of puppies. Unfortunately, some human foods that are toxic to dogs (such as chocolate) have a sweet flavor. The love of sweet-tasting items also induces dogs to lick highly toxic antifreeze that has leaked onto the floor of a garage.

In addition to making eating enjoyable and differentiating one food from another, the taste buds have another function - saving the dog's life. The bitter taste buds warn dogs of potentially toxic substances (almost every naturally occurring toxin tastes bitter). When a dog eats a toxic plant or berry, for example, the bitter taste will cause the dog to spit the food out and perhaps vomit any that was already swallowed.

The one taste that dogs are relatively insensitive to is salt. This is likely because a carnivore's diet generally contains sufficient salt for survival and there is no need for a dog to specifically seek out salts to supplement the diet, the way grass-eating animals like cows and deer must do.

A (luy % rood préférences likely begin büun dfler biriii diiu dre influenced by tne adm ^ diei.

foods. They and others have designed elaborate taste-testing protocols, in which dogs are trained by opérant conditioning to indicate their preferred foods. In the study, "A novel cognitive palatability assessment protocol for dogs," dogs were rewarded for choosing a certain food, then given a novel food (I.A. Araujo and N.W. Milgram, journal ofAnimal Science, July 2004). The novel food was considered more palatable if the dog chose it over the food for which it had been rewarded.

Another study, "Preferences of dogs for various meats," showed that dogs prefer the taste of cooked meat over raw and that they enjoy some meats better than others (C.L. Lohse, Joumal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 1974). In general, dogs prefer the following protein sources in declining order: beef, pork, lamb, chicken, horsemeat ("The role of olfaction in canine food preferences," K.A. Houpt, H.R Hintz and P. Shepherd, Chemical Senses, 1978).

Studies have also shown that preferences for particular foods likely start soon after birth, based on what the mother eats ("The evolutionary basis for the feeding behavior of domestic dogs and cats," John W.S. Bradshaw, The Journal of Nutrition, July 2006). This, as well as positive or negative associations with food, likely accounts for differences in food preferences of individual dogs.

According to some studies, dogs fed the same food all the time suffer a monotony effect; they gradually lose their appetites. This quickly can be reversed by providing novel foods. This need for a vari- ety of foods likely played an essential function before the age of dog food in helping dogs seek out multiple food sources, thus reducing the likelihood of nutritional deficiencies. When Scooter scarfed down the horse poop, he was simply enjoying a novel food.

Dog food formulas

Not surprisingly, dog food manufacturers have performed extensive studies on dogs' sense of taste in an effort to make the most palatable

A dog's ability to identify bittertastes helps it avoid eating toxic substances.

52 • September 20D9

Losing taste

Several diseases can affect a dog's sense of taste. Dogs with hypothy- roidism are thought to suffer from a decreased sense of both taste and smell. This is important given the high incidence of hypothyroidism in many dog breeds and the condition's increasing incidence the longer a dog lives. Some anti-cancer drugs can also alter this sense. This is par- ticularly significant because many types of cancer cells also secrete

molecules that cause dogs to lose weight. This dou- ble hit results in a condition known as cancer cachexia - a profound loss of body weight and mus- cle mass. Dogs with chronic renal failure don't sense taste for sweet things well. This likely is because waste prod- ucts in the blood can cause nausea, as well as mouth ulcers and infections. Many otber conditions can cause a dog to lose its sense of taste. Dogs with diabetes have a reduced sen- sitivity for all five tastes, possibly because this condi- tion damages the peripheral nerves. A dog that expe- riences cranial trauma, from being hit by a car for example, may lose its sense of taste. Usually tempo- rary, taste returns as the brain beals and reforms its neural connec- tions. Depression can cause reduced sensitivity to taste because of serotonin's importance in sending taste messages to the brain. Sero- tonin levels usually are lower in animals with depression.

Certain therapeutic drugs can affect taste, too. For example, doxycycline (the antibiotic of choice for dogs that test positive for tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever), can cause a dog to temporarily lose the ability to taste or to experience abnormal taste sensations, such as metallic- tasting food.

Whetting the appetite

Tbe palatability of a dog's food can be increased by adding moisture (which increases the food's odor), fat, protein, sugar or salt (in rea- sonable amounts), and also by adding particularly aromatic flavors, such as garlic salt. One excellent way to give your dog's food a gour- met taste is to marinate it in sweet fruit juices, sweet and sour sauces, or yogurt with garlic and ginger paste. One or more of these simple dietary modifications can be helpful for dogs that have lost their appetite due to illness or dogs tbat must eat a special diet. For example, the addition of garlic or a novel source of carbohydrates, such as strawberries, can help a dog with renal fail- ure enjoy a low-protein diet and thus prolong its life.

Peculiar preferences

When it comes to your dog's propen- sity to give you a big wet slurp on

Dogs are drawn to sweet-tasting foods, which can be good sources of energy when meat is scarce.

Studies have shown that dogs prefer the taste of some meats more than others.

the face after visiting the kitty litter box for a midday snack or dining on poopsicles during winter, it might be best to keep what's out of sight out of mind. If you prevent your dog from having access to those canine delights, it will likely choose more accessible fare, such as the loaf of freshly baked bread left out on the counter or the dense, lush grass growing in the shadows by the house.

Flavor friends

Where taste is concerned, our canine companions aren't all that different from us. Dogs' taste buds function biochemically just like humans' and like us, dogs have tbeir favorite and not-so- favorite foods. Dogs love to eat and most prefer to eat until they are quite full. The major difference is that tbeir taste preferences are those of a car- nivore, modified by tens of thousands of years of eating leftovers from our tables and scavenging waste from human communities. What a perfect collaborative relationship! /f

M. Christine link, DVM, Ph.D., presents Coaching the Canine Athlete seminars worldwide, and is a consultant

on canine sports medicine,