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Cat lapping water

📷 Dorothea Oldani from Unsplash

The essentials

  • Cats and dogs have different drinking techniques Dogs submerge their tongues and scoop up water like a ladle, while cats skim their tongues along the top of the water.
  • Domestic cats average four laps per second — Big cats like lions take fewer laps due to their larger tongues. 
  • Humans use gravity to drink, while cats have to work against it — The reason dogs and cats can’t use suction to drink is that they have incomplete cheeks. This means they can’t create a seal with their mouths the way humans can.

How your cat's tongue works

Have you ever wondered why your cat’s tongue feels rough? It’s because it’s covered in tiny, hook-shaped bristles called papillae. Just like your fingernails, these bristles are made of keratin, a type of skin protein. 

Water sticks to this sandpaper-like surface through a process called adhesion. Liquid is then brought up into the air and, eventually, into your cat’s mouth.

Up close cat tongue

Close-up photo of a cat's tongue with visible papillae.

How cats drink water

Humans and some animals are able to drink by sucking water into their mouths. But cats and dogs don’t have complete cheeks and are unable to drink the same way humans can. Instead, they must rely on their tongues to capture and draw water into their mouths. 

When cats drink, they use the top of their tongue to flick up the liquid, creating a column of water. Then, they close their mouth around the water column before it has time to fall back into the bowl. They drink whatever water they’ve caught in their mouth and repeat the process over again.

Researchers at MIT have developed an equation to study the mathematics involved in this unique technique by filming cats as they drink and playing the footage back in slow motion. Cats must close their mouths at exactly the right moment to be sure they capture the water while it’s still in the air.

👉 To learn about the subtle differences between the way that cats and dogs drink, check out this video.

Getting your cat to drink more water

While physics can help explain the mechanics behind your cat’s tongue, encouraging your feline to drink is a true art. Dehydration is bad for your cat’s health and can present symptoms such as sunken eyes and constipation. Keeping your cat full of fluids is especially important if they suffer from health conditions such as urinary tract infections or kidney disease. Below are our cat-tested and vet-approved tips for making sure your kitty gets the hydration they need:

Make the switch to wet food — Canned food will provide more liquid to your cat’s diet than dry food.

Ensure your cat has several water dishes — Putting multiple water sources around your home will give your cat more chances to rehydrate. Just be sure to add fresh water to each bowl daily. And make sure to keep your cat’s water dish away from their litter box and food since cats can be quite sensitive to smells.

Put ice in your cat’s water — Adding ice cubes to your cat’s water bowl is a fun and easy way to spark their interest in water and encourage them to drink more.

Try flowing water — Some cats prefer the gurgle of running water, which is why cat water fountains tend to be quite popular. We’ve recommended one of our favorites below.

Frequently asked questions

How do cats lick up water?

Cats use their tongues to skim the top of their water and flick it into the air. While the water is suspended, they bite down and swallow.

How does my cat’s tongue work when they drink water?

The papillae on your feline’s tongue help ensure the water from their bowl makes it into the air and, eventually, into your cat’s mouth.

Do cats drink water from a bowl?

Yes, a simple water bowl will work, but some cats prefer to drink from a water fountain.

How much water should my cat be drinking?

The average 10-pound cat should drink about 8 ounces of water each day.

How can I get my cat to drink more water?

Increase your cat’s water consumption by providing fresh water daily, using a cat water fountain, or adding ice to their bowl. Switching from dry to wet food could also increase your cat’s daily water intake.

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