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What I've Learned
I like dogs, particularly large, fun-loving, slobbery ones, but I like cats more. Over the years, our house has been more of a cat house than a dog house, if you'll pardon the expressions.
Residing in our home we have had Blinken, Buttercup, Deacon, Eva Duarte (also known as Eva, Miss Eva, and Evita Gatita), Half-n-Half, Grasshopper (also known as You-Miserable-Cat), Lola, Nephi, and Quin. (These are listed alphabetically, for cats are a sensitive lot.)
Currently, the only feline resident is Quin, a handsome orange-furred fellow, also known as Quinster, Quinstar Runner, and The Quininator.
You'd think with all this cat experience, I'd have noticed, at least once, how cats drink. Until recently, I thought cats drink the same way dogs do.
A dog's lapping and a cat's lapping, it turns out, are as different as, well, cats and dogs.
A dog laps by forming a spoon with its tongue and scooping the water in. However, slow motion footage reveals what you would never suspect. A dog bends its tongue backwards, creating a J-shaped spoon on the underside instead of top and does what might be referred to as a reverse slurp.
A cat uses an entirely different approach, an elegant, finely-timed, scientific approach that balances inertia against gravity to create a column of water, which the cat bites out of the air.
Perhaps a quick reminder of Newton's first law of motion is in order. It says that a body at rest tends to stay at rest and a body in motion tends to stay in motion, until acted upon by an outside force. In this case, the body in motion is the upward movement of the column of water and the outside force is gravity trying to pull it back down.
First, a cat bends its tongue backwards into a J shape, very much like a dog does. But instead of dipping the J into the water to scoop some up in a backwards slurp, a cat uses the outside bowl of the J, which is actually the top side of the tongue near the tip, to touch the surface of the water. The tongue is then pulled into the mouth. The surface of the water sticks to the tongue and is pulled upward. If the timing is right, a column of water is formed. Before gravity can overcome the upward motion of the water, the cat closes its mouth, capturing the upper part of the column.
This motion, like most everything a cat does, is graceful and efficient. A dog's scooping motion leaves its muzzle soaked, as anyone knows if they have been nuzzled by a dog right after it drinks. A cat, with its tongue-lift motion, can drink without wetting its muzzle.
Lions, tigers, and other large cats drink the same way house cats do, though for the trick to work, the timing must be adjusted for larger tongue size and distance to the mouth.
Billy Collins, in his poem, The Revenant, claims that in heaven dogs speak in poetry, while cats and everyone else speak in prose. If that turns out to be true, it won't negate the fact that on earth cats drink like royalty and dogs, like buffoons.
Roman Stocker, a biophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the one who discovered the feline drinking motion, thanks to his cat, Cutta Cutta, who demonstrated it each morning at breakfast. Stocker, unable to follow exactly what was happening when his cat drank, set up a high-speed camera to capture Cutta Cutta's tongue action, then slowed down the film to have a look.
Stocker and other researchers at MIT have created a simple robot that can duplicate a cat's water-lifting tongue motion. Picture a round disc attached at the top to a rod. The bottom of the disc is rough, like a cat's tongue.
The machine can lower the disc so it touches the surface of a bowl of water then lift the disc at speeds set by an operator. Experiments show, and there is video of this on line, that there is an optimal speed, adjusted for the surface area of the disc's bottom, which allows inertia to momentarily overcome gravity and form a water column. Each cat instinctively learns the correct speed for its tongue size and distance from the water.
When The Quininator drinks, he crouches down and has his muzzle close to the water surface, closer than most cats, an indication that he has adopted the technique to his own particular body mechanics.
It's a marvel to me that as many cats and cat-lovers as there are and have been, no one noticed, until Roman Stocker, how a cat drinks. I certainly never did.