Why Do Cats Gag At Combs?

Over the last year or so there have been thousands of viral videos showing cats exhibiting a gag reflex when their human runs a finger or a coin down the teeth of a comb. 

Although the videos are strange and entertaining for those watching them, the sound of running a finger or coin down the teeth of a comb causes a lot of discomfort for the cat. 

The reason for this is not well-established, but it has been speculated that it may be related to the fact that they are born with an oral-motor reflex relating to sounds.  

This article details what a gag reflex is, why cats react to combs and other objects in this way, and the importance of avoiding doing this to your cat. So, let’s jump right in.

What Is The Gag Reflex?

The gag reflex is a reflexive response to stimuli applied to the back of the throat. It is triggered by mechanical stimulation (such as touching the back of the throat) or chemical irritation (like eating spicy food) or from sound frequencies.

When a cat swallows, the muscles around their mouth contract and push food into their esophagus. If the back of the throat is touched while swallowing, the muscles will tighten up and prevent food from entering the stomach. 

Reasons Why Cats Gag To The Sound Of Combs

There are several theories about why cats gag to the sound of a comb. One theory suggests that the sound stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which runs through the jaw and face.

Another theory proposes that the sound activates the vagus nerve, which runs along the neck. Both nerves play a role in regulating heart rate and breathing. 

Another theory suggests that the gag reflex is caused by the sound being similar to the sound made by a kitten’s mother licking her kittens.

Another theory relating to sound is that the cat’s prey use ultrasonic sounds to communicate. 

These high-pitched sounds are what cats ears are sensitive to, and over stimulation of the cats from these sounds may cause them to react in a strange way, i.e., by gagging.

This is because it is too much for their brains to process and may even cause them discomfort.

This audio source of irritation may irritate or activate the nerves around the muscles involved in the gag reflex, which is why they gag when they hear the sound of the comb teeth. 

Another reason the gagging reaction may occur is due to the cat experiencing a precursor to an Audiogenic Reflex seizure.

This is a type of epileptic condition that is more common in older cats. In this condition, certain sounds, such as running a finger down the teeth of a comb, may aggravate the brain activity responsible for activating a seizure.

How Sensitive Is The Hearing Of Cats?

Cats can hear sounds between 20Hz and 100kHz. Their hearing range extends beyond that of humans. They can detect sounds below 20Hz and above 100kHz.

Their hearing sensitivity peaks at approximately 50-100Hz. At higher frequencies, their auditory system becomes less efficient. 

Their hearing ability varies depending on how close they are to the source of the sound.

For example, if you place a cat near a speaker playing music, it will likely turn its head towards the source of the sound, but if you put it further away, it might not notice. 

Cats are more sensitive to sounds like the white noise coming from electronic devices or appliances that us humans cannot hear. These noises are usually between 1 Khz and 10Khz. 

Other noises that cause cat discomfort include hissing noises from other animals and loud noises such as cars or thunder. 

It is important to note that there are many factors that affect the amount of sound a cat hears. 

The distance between the cat and the source of the sound impacts how loud it is to the cat. A cat that is farther away from the source of the sound will be able to hear it better than one that is closer.

The size of the object emitting the sound alters how loud the sound is to the cat. Smaller objects emit lower pitched sounds than larger ones. 

The shape of the object emitting the noise influences how loud the sound will be to the cat. Objects with sharp edges emit louder sounds than flat surfaces. 

The type of material used to make an object modifies how loud the sound emitted by the object is to the cat. Hard materials such as metal and glass emit louder sounds than soft materials such as cloth and paper. 

The temperature of the object emitting the sounds impacts how loud the sound it emits to the cat. Cold objects emit quieter sounds than hot objects. 

The speed of the object emitting the loudness influences how loud the sound the object emits to the cat. Fast moving objects emit louder sounds than slow moving ones. 

All of these factors impact how loud the sound emitted from the object is to the animal. 

A cat’s hearing ability is so acute that it can detect the difference between two tones played simultaneously. It has been found that cats can distinguish between two notes separated by only 0.1 Hz (one cycle per second).

A cat’s hearing ability is also very good at detecting the differences between similar sounding pitches. For instance, a cat can tell the difference between a tone and a tone that is half as loud.

What Else Activates Their Gag Reflex?

Cats also gag if they feel something irritating in their mouths. For example, they gag if you touch their tongue, lips, cheeks, or eyes. They also gag if they eat hot foods like chili peppers or onions.

How Can I Avoid Activating My Cat’s Gag Reflex?

You should never put anything in your cat’s mouth that could potentially trigger their gag reflex.

Even though you may think that your cat would enjoy chewing on some treats, you should not give them any treats that contain bones, seeds, nuts, or hard candy. These items have sharp edges that could hurt your cat’s mouth and cause them to gag. 

You should also try to keep your cat away from things that make noise, such as hairbrushes, electric toothbrushes, and hair dryers. These devices produce loud noises that may startle your cat and cause them to gag and possibly choke.

If you accidentally place something in your cat’s mouth that causes them to gag, immediately remove it and take action to calm your cat down. 

One way of calming down your cat is to hold your cat gently with both hands and talk soothingly to your cat, or place your cat on your lap and stroke their tummy to help them relax.

If they are gagging on a physical object, use your fingers to gently pull out the item that is causing your cat to gag. Put your hand under your cat’s chin and lift their head slightly so that they cannot swallow the item.

If you are concerned that your cat is having a seizure, take them to the vet as soon as possible. 

Summary: The End Of The Tail

Despite the entertainment factor of these viral videos of cats gagging because of the sound the comb emits, it is important not to do it. It is cruel to actively cause discomfort for your cat, and you should not do it. 

If your cat is particularly sensitive to sound, it is essential to try to remove uncomfortable sounds from their environment.

Courtney Trent
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