New Study: Cats are Perfect!

Cat fanciers know the drill: Cats are perfect. They pose with precision as if arranged by a stylist, they clean themselves with languid but exact precision, and they scheme smart, sly scenarios with perfect nonchalance. They are also the poster pet for grace and elegance. They seem to defy gravity, as well as reason, with their exquisite balance–they are phenoms in the physics department. This we know. But until recently it wasn’t known that this perfection is evident all the way down to the way in which they lap liquids.

Researchers at MIT, Virginia Tech and Princeton University analyzed the way domestic and big cats drink and found that felines of all sizes take advantage of a perfect balance between two physical forces. The results were recently published in the online issue of the journal Science.

It had been known that when cats drink, they stick their tongues straight down toward the liquid with the tip of the tongue curled backwards to form a scoop, so that the top part of the tongue touches the liquid first. The new research reveals that the top surface of the cat’s tongue is the only surface to touch the liquid. Cats, unlike dogs, aren’t using their tongues like spoons after all. Instead, the cat’s lapping mechanism is much more subtle and elegant. (But don’t tell that to the cats.) The researchers observed that the smooth tip of the tongue barely brushes the surface of the liquid before the cat rapidly draws its tongue back up. As it does so, a column of milk forms between the moving tongue and the liquid’s surface. The cat then closes its mouth, pinching off the top of the column for a nice drink, while keeping its chin dry. Of course, none of that unsightly milk on the chin.

And here’s where the cat’s innate sense of physics comes into play. The liquid column is created by a subtle and perfect balance between gravity, which pulls the liquid back to the bowl, and inertia, which in physics means the tendency of the liquid to continue moving in a direction unless another force interferes. The cat instinctively knows just how quickly to lap in order to balance these two forces, and just when to close its mouth. If it waits another fraction of a second, the force of gravity will overtake inertia, causing the column to break, the liquid to fall back into the bowl, and the cat’s tongue to come up empty.

Knowing the size and speed of the tongue of various cats they studied, the researchers then developed a mathematical model involving the Froude number, a dimensionless number that characterizes the ratio between gravity and inertia. For cats of all sizes, that number is almost exactly one, indicating a perfect balance!

So the next time your puss is looking smug on the couch, just remember, she is a pretty perfectly purring machine after all.

188 comments

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogersabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogersabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing.

Tamara A.
.9 months ago

I love cats and I'm proud to be a crazy cat lady.lol! They give unconditional love, they really do. Tamara

Glennis Whitney
Glennis Whitney1 years ago

All cats are purr-fect, adore them all, also love dogs too

Glennis Whitney
Glennis Whitney1 years ago

Saff has a bowl that he drinks from, also a glass that he laps at, sometimes he puts his paw in it and then licks his paw, also have to watch my cups of coffee or tea, if I turn my back he will put his paw in it too, great article.

Kimmy H.
Kimmy H2 years ago

I always knew they were perfect.

Melinda L.
Melinda L2 years ago

Didn't go backward looking to see what Klaus {bad experience with claws?} said. Just skipping that drama to say that cats are truely amazing. Also wondering if the viscosity of the liquid doesn't also have to enter into the equation....water vs milk, or cream or ice cream or canned food, etc?

Diana Hudspeth
Diana Hudspeth2 years ago

I knew my cats were smart, but did not know they were such masters of science and math too! WOW.

Walter G.
Walter G3 years ago

Klaus? Klaus who? Anyway, l remember when seeking a cat for a companion, we have found after hundreds of kittens and cats associated with our rescue that you can really like and choose a cta, but the closest relationship is when a cat adopts you!

TKeya S.
Annilynn S3 years ago

@Klaus P. If any cat is like that, then just as with dogs that behave in way we consider "improper", you can only blame the owners. Not the cats. I for one have had cats for years and have never experienced anything like that. And as for the "cold" notion, again depends on how the cat is raised. And even so, there are other animals like dogs that can grow to be unfriendly as well. No need to stereotype since it is not a universal fact. My own cat loves me and is always snuggling against me to the point it gets annoying sometimes. But he's still adorable. ^^