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How good is a dog's sense of taste?

Original Publication Date: September 15, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

A dog's gustatory sense or sense of taste is present at birth but takes several weeks to develop fully. Like people, dogs have taste buds that discriminate between sour, bitter, sweet, and salty foods.

In evolutionary terms, the sense of taste is a very old. Its importance is much greater than having the ability to appreciate a juicy steak or meat-flavored dog biscuit.

The sense of taste is important for survival as it signals if food is safe to eat. As a rule of thumb, a bad taste suggests that a substance may be harmful while good taste indicates digestible food.

But what is taste actually? Taste is the sense by which sweet, sour, bitter, or salty flavors are detected through sense organs called taste buds.

Taste buds are found in small bumps or papillae on the surface of the tongue.

Some are also present on the palate or soft part of the roof of the mouth and in the back of the mouth where the throat begins.

When a dog eats, special taste receptor cells on the taste buds are tuned to detect molecules released from the chewed food.

These tiny bits are carried by saliva to taste receptor cells that recognize specific chemical groups. When activated, a receptor sends a message to the brain that interprets the information as a recognizable sour, bitter, sweet, or salty taste.

Different diets require different numbers and types of taste buds to ensure an animal's survival.

Dogs have about 1,700 taste buds compared to humans who have around 10,000.

About 80 percent of a dog's diet consists of meat.

In addition to receptors for sweet, salt, sour, and bitter, they have specific receptors tweaked for meats and fats, which are much preferred. But dogs are omnivores and supplement their diet with plants. Their sweet taste buds respond to carbohydrates which are an important food source for plant eaters.

How good is a dog's sense of taste? How good is a dog's sense of taste?
(click image to enlarge)

Cats have just under 500 taste buds. Our companion kitties and their wild relatives like lions and tigers have a mutation that makes them unable to taste sweet. Since they are obligate carnivores that eat only meat, sweetness receptors are not necessary for survival.

Dogs and cats also have taste buds for water that are not present in humans. Water taste buds are located at the tip of the tongue, which is the part that curls to lap water.

This area always responds to water but becomes more sensitive when the animal eats something salty like meat and the need for water is increased.

Dogs generally prefer meat or meat-flavored foods, but their sense of taste is not very developed. That is why you can feed the same dog food every day, and why they sometimes eat ghastly things like bugs and trash.

What is the grossest thing your dog ever ate?

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at