While my cat Millie is anything but graceful when she’s chasing her toys around the house, she’s extremely dainty when drinking water. According to a recent story in the New York Times, there’s actually a science behind how she does it.
Unlike humans, dogs and cats are not able to create suction with their mouths and instead have to use their tongues to drink. When dogs drink water, they slurp it up by cupping the liquid on the back of their tongue. Cats, on the other hand, have to use the tip of their tongue to get the water in their mouths.
Without diving too far into the technical specifics, a feline’s drinking method is based on an instinctive ability to identify the point at which gravity is about to overcome inertia.
What this means: When a cat’s tongue darts into water, the tip curves downward and then back upward at high speed, bringing a trail of water behind it. Then, as gravity is about to kick in and pull the water back down, the cat’s jaw shuts, capturing the water.
As felines lap at four times a second—too fast for human eyes to see—the four engineers who worked on this study videotaped cats drinking and then slowed it down to study the process.
When the research began, the engineers believed that the hairs on a cat’s tongue that are used for grooming helped the animal drink. However, it turns out that the tip of a cat’s tongue is actually smooth, so the hairs play no part in lapping up liquid.