More specifically, they can’t detect sweetness itself.
Cats have quite a few heightened senses compared to you and I, but taste is not one of them. As obligate carnivores that evolved to eat meat, their “sweetness detectors” were permanently lost millions of years ago. Or simply never developed at all.
Sweetness is a sign of rich carbohydrates – an important source of nutrition for plant-eaters and omnivores – but not something a meat eater wants or needs. Cats can detect umami (meatiness) as well as bitter and salty flavors, but their Tas1r2 gene, one of two genes responsible for sweetness recognition, is missing a critical number of amino acid base pairs, rendering it completely non-functional. No cat, from the mighty African lion to the fleet Cheetah to your gently purring tabby, can detect even the faintest whisper of sweetness.
That’s not to say, however, that some cats don’t display a fondness for foods we covet for their delectable sugar content (like CatCentric kitty Ralph, pictured above with his face buried in an empty pint of Ben & Jerry’s ‘Cherry Garcia’ ice cream). There are a variety of potential reasons for this, and they may differ with each cat… it could be they like the smell, the texture, the saltiness, maybe even the fat or amino acid content. (The Center for Science in the Public Interest once did a study on ice cream and determined the fat content can be comparable to that of a T-bone steak!) We may never really know why they dig such scrumptious desserts; we can only be sure it’s not for the same melt-in-your-mouth sweet sensation we enjoy. 🙂
Do your cats seem to enjoy an occasional sweet treat?