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Dear Matthew Alice:

I've seen house cats kill and eat birds, so it makes sense that they like cat food made from poultry. I also know cats hunt and consume lots of rodents, but I've yet to see cat food flavors like Sliced Rat in Gravy or Fancy Mouse Meal. And what cat in the wild ever had a chance to catch a tuna? Did prehistoric cats grab fish from ponds and thus develop a taste for sardines? So, Mr. A, two questions: Why do cats like fish? And have any cat food manufacturers tried to sell a rodent-based product?

-- Sue Beckman's Cat, Del Mar

Dear Sue Beckman's Cat: If that's who you really are. Naturally we're suspicious. If you really were Sue Beckman's Cat, you'd already know the answers. And only a human being would assume "rat" is an identifiable flavor. And that a sparrow tastes like chicken. And of course your typing is too good.

Well, where to begin? First, get Sue Beckman to hide you in her purse, then go to the zoo and look at the big Southeast Asian jungle habitat, the one with the FISHING CAT living in it. That is, the CAT that FISHES. Looks like a big tabby with stubby legs, lurks by the pool, zips out its paw, and scoops out a fish. Or sometimes, if the mood strikes, actually dives in. Fishing's an instinct most cats have. Not often stimulated, since Sue Beckman probably doesn't make your water bowl more entertaining by adding guppies. But ya know when you've been staring into your bowl in that glazed sort of way you cats have, then you tilt your head and dab your paw into the water? Well, you're giving in to that ancient-cat urge still stewing around in the back of your brain. It comes from the urge to fish, or at least to bat at reflections that move like fish. It doesn't come from a primal hunger for a big plate of pan-fried crappies. But you already knew that, didn't you, SUE BECKMAN'S CAT.

Cats are pure hunters and "obligate carnivores"; they must obtain all necessary nutrients from a high meat-protein diet. Left to their own devices they'd chase small animals and eat them, stimulated by the run-and-hide behavior of their prey. Not likely Sue Beckman pulls a can of cat food across the floor on a string at dinnertime, so to get you to eat, cat food makers move on to stimulus number two. Smell.

Nothing quite like the satisfying reek of a fresh can of cat food, right, Sue Beckman's Cat? Then if the taste and moisture and texture and temperature are right, you eat. Exactly which meat protein is in the can doesn't much matter. A cat's dining experience influences its taste preference; but in general, fillet of field mouse is no more attractive than ground chicken feet. So why should a cat food company waste time dressing out billions of rats when they can use the discards from meat processing plants? Cats eat the parts of animals we won't/can't eat. "Beef" on the label just means that some percentage of what's in the can was once attached to a cow. And until you, Sue Beckman's Cat, can strap on your little fanny pack, trot down to the supermart, select your own food, and pay for it, all cat food will be tarted up in advertising to appeal to Sue Beckman, as if she herself were going to eat it.

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