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Cat Lapping

This experiment comes from a recent event in the science news. Researches have discovered that cats drink in a very different way from dogs and other mammals. Now you might think that things like this had been completely explored decades or even centuries ago, but high speed photography has shown us things that we did not suspect before.

To explore this, you will need:

  • a glass of water
  • your fingers
  • quick reflexes

Lets start by looking at how other mammals drink. Many of them drink in the same way we do, by creating an area of low pressure inside their mouth. This lets atmospheric pressure push the water into their mouth, just as it does when you use a drinking straw or take a sip of water.

Some other mammals, such as dogs, use a different method. They curl their tongues into a spoon shape, and use it to scoop water up into their mouths.

We had always assumed that cats lapped water in the same way, but recent studies show that they use a different method. Instead of scooping the water up, the cat extends her tongue until it just touches the surface of the water. Then she pulls her tongue quickly back into her mouth. Adhesion and surface tension cause some of the water be pulled upwards, and by quickly closing her lips, the cats get a drink.

Cool, right? Want to see how it works? Place the glass of water on the table in front of you. Use the index finger of one hand to simulate a cat's tongue. You will move that finger quickly up and down, just touching the surface of the water. I found it useful to imagine I was tapping my finger quickly on a table top. As you do that, look closely to see that some of the water is being pulled upwards by the movement of your finger.

Next, use the thumb and forefinger of your other hand to simulate the cat's lips. Place your forefinger and thumb on either side of the finger that is tapping the water. As you pull your finger upwards, move the finger and thumb of the other hand together quickly, trying to catch the drops of water that follow your finger upwards. If you are fast enough, your finger and thumb will get quite wet, indicating that you would be satisfying your thirst if you were a cat.

Timing is very important, and it varies with size. Scientists calculated that larger cats would have to lap slower to be most effective, and observation of lions, tigers, and other large cats confirmed that they used the same method, and that they did lap more slowly.

I always enjoy new discoveries that have been sitting there, right under our noses, or in this case, right under out cats' noses. Scientists are already studying this in hopes of developing new ways for dealing with oil spills and delicate handling of other liquids.

Have a wonder-filled week.