Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Elegance of a Cat's Tongue

Have you ever considered the domestic and wild cats’ tongues before?  No?  Well, your consideration is well overdue!  Let’s take a look at our cats’ tongues. 

But first a quick pause:  Can you identify the tongue in the puzzle above?  If you can, let us know in the comment box below...

Okay, back to posting...

Kaiya licking a shank bone
First of all, did you know that a cat’s tongue is covered with numerous small, sharp, rear-facing projections called papillae.  These are quite rigid, as they contain keratin.  These papillae give the tongue its rough, rasping texture and is designed to help strip meat off of bones, as demonstrated during our bone night tours.

And, did you know the cat’s tongue is used to lick wounds clean after rough play?  Wound licking can accelerate healing, so it is thought of as a form of animal self-medication. There are a number of components of saliva that have been shown by scientific research to act against infection or to promote wound healing.  On the flip side, too much wound licking can cause bacterial infections or prevent wounds from healing properly.  That’s why it is very important to monitor any type of open wound found on a domestic or captive wild cat.

What you may have not known is exactly how a cat drinks water.  After all, our cats lap water so fast that the human eye cannot follow what is happening, which is why the trick had apparently escaped attention up until about two years ago when four highly qualified engineers and a bunch of integral equations, solved the mystery of how cats drink (yep it took engineers to solve the mystery!).

Unlike our dogs, who loudly lap up water by thrusting his tongue into the water, forming a crude cup with it and hauling the liquid back into the muzzle, cats have a much more elegant method of drinking water.

The four engineers from MIT, Virginia Tech and Princeton discovered that the cat’s lapping method depended upon its instinctive ability to calculate the point at which gravitational force would overcome inertia and cause the water to raise and fall.

In layman’s terms, what happens is that the cat darts her tongue, curving the upper side downward so that the tip lightly touches the surface of the water. The tongue is then pulled upward at high speed, drawing a column of water behind it. Just at the moment that gravity finally overcomes the rush of the water and starts to pull the column of water back down — snap!  Her jaws close over the jet of water, allowing her a sweet taste of fluid, while keeping her chin nice and dry.  What is truly amazing is that a domestic cat can lap four times a second—too fast for our eyes to see anything but a pink blur! 

Big cats, such as tigers and lions, do not drink as fast as their smaller counterparts.  Since their tongues are larger, they lap more slowly to achieve the same balance of gravity and inertia!

So there you have it—for cats, drinking water is truly a science. 

So next time you see our tame and wild ones drinking water, we hope you have a new appreciation for their amazing and elegant tongues!



  1. OK, I'm confused. I've seen a slow-motion video of a domestic cat's tongue folding backward, just above the surface of the water, to form a "cup" for the liquid. Do they drink in more than one way?

  2. Greetings Kent!

    I hope this video solves the mystery for you!

    1. Yes, thanks, that helped a lot - we're talking about the same thing. Wish they'd slowed the video even more!

    2. Hmm... My response never appeared, so: Thanks, that helped a great deal! We're talking about the same thing, I now see. Wish they'd slowed the video even more.

  3. I love the jigsaw puzzle. Super cute! It's not my baby's tongue so I don't know. Great article.

  4. Thank you, Andrea for your kind words and we're happy you enjoyed the jigsaw puzzle and article! So far, no one has guessed the identify of the wild cat pictured, but he/she can be found in our Facebook photo gallery...