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New Study: Cats are Perfect!

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.

Read more: Behavior & Communication, Cats, Pets, ,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

183 comments

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7:44AM PDT on Aug 31, 2014

I always knew they were perfect.

8:21PM PDT on Jul 21, 2014

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?

9:22PM PDT on Jun 11, 2014

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

8:30AM PST on Nov 10, 2013

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!

1:53PM PDT on May 14, 2013

@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. ^^

8:22AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

This is News? Cats have always been Purrfectly Devine and Delightful for eons!
The sixteen year old blind cat that owns me comes with splendid Cat-titude and Tortietude!
Delightful article.

Oh course, there are always the hatemongers like Klaus P. who drops into the comment section solely to lecture cat lovers about how terrible felines are. His words drip with venom such as: "....cats are cold and selfish and they have owners who are cold and selfish as well. The only perfection in cats I can detect is their ability to precision carpet bomb their neighbours property with sh.. and p... and destroy wildlife."

Sorry to hear that you have had bad experiences but to tar and feather every cat and cat purrson with the label of cold and selfish is self serving garbage. It is preferable that cats be spayed and neutered. He states that dogs are truly man's best friend.

Klaus, when I was young two roaming dogs tore a kitten out of my arms and killed it in front on me giving me a fear of dogs that was long lasting. However, I never painted all dogs with the same brush. Some dogs poop all over lawns and have irresponsible owners.

As for Ed stating that cats kill birds and were brought from elsewhere-well, blame the owners-people who do not spay/neuter their dogs and cats create huge over populations. Ed, with all the pigeons that over breed I will be happy to send to them your bird feeder as there is a mob of them out there and I can't use them all for squab pie!

8:22AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

To continue with my comment from below since Care2 has no twitter like word count warning us when we long winded ones are coming to the end of our word count...

Sorry Ed, could not resist. Have never had pigeon pie but your comments were just another example of humans blaming a species for something that humans have done (introducing the cat to other areas of the world where they did not originally come from).
Funny how humans think it is fine if we introduce ourselves to all areas of the globe and how natural that is but of course, we inherit the entire planet. But the cat being a predator is demeaned because it was not "naturally" here.

Neutering and spaying one's pet be they feline or canine will go a long way in cutting over poplulation...another human responsibility.

As for myself, am purrfectly content with the introduction of cats to my part of the world and have been delighted by the fact that I have been owned by many cats in the past and one lovely one in the purr-esent!

8:22AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Adding to my previous comments regarding the Purrfection of FeLions, a purrfectly graceful animal...I went for a walk this evening with two friends and Lo and Behold two cats in different locales that had never set eyes upon me gave me much pleasure.

Klaus P in the comments below had stated that cats are cold and selfish.

Seeing each cat I called out a hello and extended welcoming arms. Both cats came to me immediately, from a distance and presented themselves for a friendly petting and talking session with purrs! Cold? Selfish? The delightful cats gave me pleasure allowing me to make their acquaintance. They know who is friendly and for the most part those whom are not and as any well treated companion give pleasure to me by giving friendly greetings.

7:59PM PDT on Jul 27, 2012

It has always been obvious that cats are perfect. Cats rule!

8:06PM PDT on May 9, 2012

KLAUS. NOT many peeps on here are liking what your saying. Your not talking right are u really?.. Cats are FREE SPIRITS, DOGS AINT. u have to train and walk a dog for his poos and pees. You dont with a cat. they instinctively know what to do. Why are you so against cat lovers and cats? I sorta sense some hostility there why?.. i love cats, i love all animals. Maybve your are just one of lifes oddballs eh? Lol.. Cats have got shit somewhere mate Give it up

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