The Scientific Truth about Cats and Water

Cats are Water Wizards

Water is essential to survival and land animals have evolved to meet their water needs in various ways. Some absorb water

Lions drinking water photo by Greg du Toit

photo courtesy of Greg du Toit, Wildlife Photographer

through the skin, some extract water from the moisture in their food but most animals rely on drinking water to stay hydrated.

At first you might say, well of course animals drink water, but when you start to think about it, the simple act of drinking presents a challenge because fresh water is mostly a horizontal liquid surface in puddles, ponds, lakes and streams so animals must work against gravity to get the water up off the ground and into their mouths. This simple act of survival is actually a remarkable achievement.

It is physically impossible for a cat to suck.

Vertebrates (animals with backbones) use their tongue in two distinctly different ways. Vertebrates with complete cheeks, such as pigs, sheep, and horses, use suction to draw liquid upward and use their tongue to transport it into the mouth. However, vertebrates with incomplete cheeks, including most carnivores (cats are carnivores),  are unable (after weaning) to seal their mouth cavity to create suction and therefore rely on their tongue to move water into the mouth. It is physically impossible for a cat to suck.

When the tongue sweeps the bottom of a shallow puddle, the process is called licking. When the puddle is deeper and the tongue cannot reach the bottom, it is called lapping.  Even if you have watched your cat lap water, you might not have been fully aware of the complexity of the maneuver  because the cat tongue’s motion is too fast for the naked eye.

Dr. Roman Stocker, a biophysicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,  was inspired to investigate the physics of cat laps after watching Cutta Cutta, a cat sharing his own habitat drinking water.  Here is what Dr. Stocker found to be  happening when your cat drink’s or rather laps water.*

With their face in a downward position the cat sticks out their tongue with its tip curled sharply. At the lowest position of the tongue’s tip, its dorsal (bottom) side rests on the liquid surface, without piercing it. When the cat lifts the tongue, water adhering to the dorsal side of the tip is drawn upward, forming a column. This water column is further extended by the tongue’s upward motion, thinning in the process, and is finally partially captured upon jaw closure. The water is trapped between the roof of the mouth and the tongue until it is swallowed.

Here  is a short video demonstrating the remarkable cat tongue.

The researchers discovered that big cats such as tigers, leopards and cheetahs also use the same elegant method as their domestic cousins to intake water.  However, it is no surprise that dogs use their tongues in a less refined way than cats. The dog splashes and carries on in a more vigorous and raucous method of scooping water into their mouths making noise and a mess.

Dr Stocker and his colleagues speculate that cats might have developed this sophisticated method of drinking based on their dislike of water and/or the desire to keep the super sensitive area around the nose and whiskers as dry as possible. But perhaps the cat just has a better understanding of physics and fluid mechanics than the dog.

*Reis, P. M., Sunghwan, J., Aristoff, J. M., & Stocke, R. (2010). How Cats Lap: Water Uptake by Felis catus. Science, 330(6008), 1231-1234. doi:10.1126/science.1195421

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  1. My cat Smudge likes to climb into the bathroom basin, balance carefully on one side of it, and asks me to turn on the tap so he can lap water from it. Sometimes he also drinks water from his bowl. He is cute and clever like you Gracey!

  2. Michele C. Hollow says

    I’ve watched Earl Gray lap up water many times. He also sticks his paw into his water dish and splashes. He loves his dish because it pumps filtered water.

  3. Magwhisk says

    I think you are right, Gracey, ” the cat just has a better understanding…” lol! I read this to my father and we both enjoyed your explanation! Rerun always has to paw the water first, before she drinks. Maggie is very dainty in her consumption. 🙂

  4. Billie-Renee Knight says

    All of my cats use an alternative method of drinking – they stick a paw in the water and lift beads of water out to be licked off the paw. It is very cute to watch.