Sweeteners in Pet Food: Dogs vs. Cats

When it comes to pet food, sugar and forms of sugar like fructose, cane, and caramel, are used to enhance taste while providing little nutritional value to the pet.  Sugar is a high calorie, low benefit ingredient that is really not needed in a quality pet food.  Let’s take a look at the differences between the “sweet tooth” of dogs and cats and how this impacts the ingredients in their respective foods.

The canine taste systems are very similar to humans and dogs do indeed have a taste for sweets. The majority of canine taste buds respond to sugar, most likely a reflection of their omnivorous evolution. Like people, dogs are able to detect a kind of “fruity-sweet” flavor that attracts them to the calorie-rich ripeness of fruits and vegetables, and sugar.

Cats on the other hand, do not taste sweetness at all. According to an article in Scientific American, cats are alone among mammals lacking the sweet gene.

So why is sugar and other sweeteners added to pet food?  In the case of dog food, it is a cheap way to improve flavor. Added sugar is more prevalent in cheaper, lower quality dog foods.  Lower protein food with low quality proteins and fats will likely need an extra dose of sweetness to get your dog to eat the food at all.

In the case of cats, added sugar is not nearly as common as it is in dog food.  Yet, it is still used in a fair amount of cat foods for some reason.  I really don’t know why sugar is added since cats can’t taste sweetness anyway.  Perhaps it is just a cheap way to increase the amount of calories in a serving.

Just like in human diets, there are plenty of ways to provide added sweetness while also providing some nutritional benefit.  Fruits, and some vegetables can provide natural sweetness along with anti-oxidants and other health benefits.    The table below shows some common pet food ingredients that can add a sweet taste to the pet food.




Sugar, caramel, cane


Corn syrup


Sucrose, fructose



Honey /Molasses

Propylene Glycol

The bottom line is that you can serve your dog healthy and tasty meals without added sugars or artificial sweeteners.  And your cats won’t care if their food tastes sweet at all.  Don’t waste the calories (or the chemicals) and choose foods with fruits and veggies instead.

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