An 18th Century Experiment on Cats

An 18th Century Experiment on Cats
Julie Manet with Cat, 1887, by Renoir, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Supposedly, the French have always had a mania for cats. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known better by his stage name Molière, is said to have had a favorite cat, and a celebrated harpist named Madame de Puis, so loved her furry feline she left a pension for it in her will. There was also French impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir born in the mid-1800s. He painted several paintings with cats, including “Young Girl with Cat,” “Geraniums and Cats,” and “Julie Manet with Cat.”

Another cat lover was Louis-François Fontenu (called l’Abbe de Fontenu). In the eighteen century, he was curious about cats (or as the French call them les chats) and because he was curious, he observed them daily. One day while observing them, he noticed something rather interesting:

“Having remarked how cats often habituate themselves, and oftener than one could … to dry warrens … he fancied that these animals could do for a very long time with drinking.”

This was a light bulb moment for Fontenu because he decided to conduct an experiment to determine how long a cat could go without water.

Common House Cat with Kittens, Author's Collection
Common House Cat with Kittens, Author’s Collection

Fontenu’s experiment involved a large, castrated cat he had on hand. He began to slowly reduce the amount of water the cat drank until at last, the cat completely abstained from water. However, Fontenu did feed the cat its usual fare, boiled meat. After the cat had not drank water for seven months, Fontenu communicated his observations to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris.

As the experiment continued, the cat continued to not have no water. Nineteen months later, the cat still was not drinking water and supposedly was “not less well in health, nor less fat.” However, Fontenu did report the cat seemed to eat less than before. He also reported the cat’s “excrements were more firm and dry, which were not evacuated but every second day, though urine came forth six or seven times during the same time.”

Although the cat was not drinking water, Fontenu noted the cat did show “an ardent desire to drink.” Moreover, Fontenu maintained:

“[The cat] used his best endeavours to testify the same … especially when he saw a pot of water in [Fontenu’s] … hand. He licked greedily the mug, the glass, iron; in short, every thing that could procure for his tongue the sensation of coolness.”

Angora Cats, Authors Collection
Angora Cats, Authors Collection

The experiment ended after 26 months. Fontenu then concluded that a “cat may support thirst for a considerable time, without risk of madness, or any other fatal accident.” Fontenu also reported that the cat was likely not the only animal who might have the tendency to survive without water.

Years, later in 2010, people became more interested in how cats drank water rather than the fact they might not drink water at all. Researchers discovered that most adult carnivores cannot close their mouths to create suction, and, so, according to the New York Times, an experiment conducted by four engineers using hundreds of internal equations determined that

“Cats lap water so fast that the human eye cannot follow what is happening, which is why the trick had apparently escaped attention until now. With the use of high-speed photography, the neatness of the feline solution has been captured. … What happens is that the cat darts its tongue, curving the upper side downward so that the tip lightly touches the surface of the water. The tongue is then pulled upward at high speed, drawing a column of water behind it. Just at the moment that gravity finally overcomes the rush of the water and starts to pull the column down — snap! The cat’s jaws have closed over the jet of water and swallowed it.”


  • Burke, Edmund, The Annual Register, 1796
  • Wade, Nicholas, “For Cats, a Big Gulp With a Touch of the Tongue,” in New York Times, 11 November 2010
  • The Recreative Review, or Eccentricities of Literature and Life, Volume 2, 1822

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