Running a thumb across the teeth of a comb caused this cat to retch. Why?

The internet tells me that certain sounds, in this case the sound you can make when you run your thumb along the teeth of a comb, causes some cats to initiate the gag response or gag reflex. Here is the video:

The reason the lady who made the video gives is incorrect in my view (but see below). So what is the reason? In humans the gag reflex prevents something from entering the throat and is stimulated by touching the back of the mouth. Sometimes, very rarely, I automatically initiate the gag reflex when I cough a lot. The point I am making is that the reflex is not always kicked off by putting a finger down your throat.

But….why does this particular sound made with a comb cause this response? For me it is similar to old cats having minor fits when they hear certain sorts of sharp sounds. I don’t know the answer for sure but I am tempted to conclude that this is about brain function and the sound tweaks the brain.

Since writing this post I have done more work in feline responses to certain sounds – auditory induced reflex seizures. There is definitely a health issue here. Click here if you’d like to read more on this.

My guess is that the gag reflex in this instance is not typical, by which I mean to stop something going down the throat, but a very minor version of a fit.


Auditory induced reflex seizures in cats. Genuine or hype?


Other, similar sounds cause the same behavior:

There may be a connection, as the lady says, with the vibrissae (the whiskers). These are very sensitive. The buzzing sound might stimulate the cat’s whiskers. This may send a false signal to the cat that something is in his mouth. But I don’t think this is what is happening. As mentioned, I see the gag reflex in this instance as a non-useful or non-purposeful automatic reflex caused by certain sounds. In some older cats these sounds cause full-blown fits but in younger cats it causes the gag reflex.

That leaves us with the question, why does it happen? The answer may throw a lot of light on how the domestic cat perceives his/her environment. Anyone got any good ideas?

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7 thoughts on “Running a thumb across the teeth of a comb caused this cat to retch. Why?”

  1. i tried the comb thing & it doesnt do THAT, but it does make him come hopping over to me to get combed & brushed. i already knew that the crinkle bag thing wouldnt work like that either cuz whenever Lex hears a crinkle he comes running into my office or to wherever i am cuz he thinks hes gonna get a treat whether its a treat treat or some of MY food as a treat…he IS a cat-dog though. yeah hes a chow-hound. he will eat just about anything…as long as i hold it out to him in the palm of my hand. if i put it any place other than my hand or his dish he wont eat it. my gfs cat Blake wont eat it unless its on the floor or in his dish & he ONLY eats his food, cat treats, or plain noodles, oh & clam chowder. the comb retch thing doesnt work on him either. theyre both 4 1/2 yrs old. i dont know if THATs supposed to make a difference.

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  2. We’re all sensitive to certain sounds, and respond differently. I was visiting someone yesterday for the first time, and during the time we were having a conversation she had some Johnny Cash music on TV so loud, I almost felt nauseous trying to continue our visit. I’ve experienced this feeling before, when the TV background sounds dominate, but no one else seems to notice. They just talk over it. It’s upsetting to me to attempt to do this, and it causes a nervous feeling in my gut.

    I wonder if any studies have been done about how cats react to certain sounds. I’m sure they have, but not sure about the comb.

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    • I would really like to see some studies done on this sort of subject. I have a strong feeling that we, humans, are missing something important in the way that domestic cats react to certain sorts of sounds. I believe that a study would shed light on an aspect of cat anatomy and cat behaviour that we don’t yet know about.

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  3. No,but it makes most cringe. The body reacts. Maybe certain sounds make cats react by retching.Think of all the things our body reacts to physically,smells,sounds,etc. Why not other species? In the videos it looks as if their saliva glands become overactive,thus causing them to gag.

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    • Yes, I agree Geri. I would just like to see some scientist do some proper research on this topic. We don’t have clear answers as to why domestic cats react to certain sorts of sounds in quite a strong way. I believe that it is something inherent within the cat going back to their wild cat ancestor. I think the study would shed light on cat anatomy and behaviour.

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