I have two cats. We keep two food bowls in the kitchen for them and a water bowl… in the bathtub. Anywhere else and they either won’t drink from it or our dog will drink it because unlike my cats, she doesn’t care. She’ll eat and drink from anything, like most dogs and she will make a big loud mess of it. But house cats are the princess of the animal world.
Most cat owners and toddlers with an animal touch-and-feel book know that cats have rough sandpaper tongues, so they can properly slobber all over their bodies to get clean. What some people may not know is that the cat’s tongue is perfectly evolved for another purpose: drinking. Now drinking may not sound hard to you, but you have lips and you’re able to suck up or sip liquid with those luscious lips and cheeks of yours. Most of the beast creatures living in your home don’t have this ability, which is why your dog leaves massive puddles around the floor of the water bowl or why your pet 500-pound rock monster throws the water bowl across the room in frustration.
So what’s so special about a cat’s tongue that let’s them drink neatly and be neurotic about the placement of their water bowl? It’s that sandpaper texture mentioned earlier. Let’s take a closer look:
Okay, that’s maybe too close. Let’s try this one, it might be a bit cuter:
No, it’s not cuter. It looks like something out of a Lovecraft novel. But before you run out of the metaphorical Internet door to throw your cats away, take a close look at what you see here exactly. There are tiny barbs on that tongue. That’s right, barbs. On a tongue. These are called papillae, and they’ve evolved several beneficial purposes for the cat: they clean the fur, they help pull meat from bones, they remove the scent from the cat’s body after pulling said meat from bones, thus protecting them from other predators and prey — and yet the most amazing thing they do with them is drink.
It used to be believed that cats ladled the water into their mouth by using it like a spoon. But cat researches in cat research institutes around the world (which I’m sure are completely real), have recently discovered that cats let their papillae do most of the work. The many tiny papillae hook onto the droplets of water, bringing them into the mouth and down the throat in a quick stream. This might not sound plausible until you realize that cats drink faster than the human eye can even see—about four times a second. This also applies to big cats, though they don’t drink quite as fast. Most parts of the cat are perfectly evolved for hunting, stalking, and sleeping, every detail taken into consideration. So it’s no wonder their tongue is so perfect too.
And yet, I still wonder why I have to keep the water bowl in the bathtub. Maybe they’re just weird. Actually, there are some evolutionary theories on that too (one being that they’re just weird). Strange water drinking habits are a more instinctual and habitual evolutionary trait and the reasons for them are not completely certain. One theory is that due to the cat evolving into the cuddly hairball chucking critter we know today in North Africa, where water is scarce, cats just became used to getting their water from their prey or from condensation (one of my cats used to love drinking the condensation off of my drink glasses). Other theories suggest cats instinctively assume still water may be stagnant and infested with dangerous parasites, or water too close to the smell of food may be unclean. It may be a combination of all these theories. Regardless of why they do anything they do, cats are just something cat owners will have to put up with. What else are you going to do? Not have a cat?
Cats are obviously specially evolved creatures, weird as they are. I wonder how other creatures have evolved to drink and why they had to evolve that way? How exactly do my parakeets drink? Does the giraffe’s long tongue assist it in drinking as much as it does in eating? How does an anteater drink effectively with a long thin tongue designed for scooping up ants? All questions for another blog posts or for the comments section.
To end this blog post, here’s a youtube video of a cat drinking in slow motion set to overly dramatic music: