What Is Catgut Made From?

iStock/SergeKa
iStock/SergeKa

Stefan Pociask:

What do cats, tennis, doctors, cows, and violins have in common? The answer is … catgut!

Catgut sutures have been around a long time. Yes, catgut is what is used to make absorbable stitches, even today. Absorbable stitches are those that don’t need to be removed; they just kind of break down and become part of your skin. Making catgut is a pretty lucrative business, as there is still a fair demand for the material. But where does it come from?

If your cat is sitting with you as you read this, you can tell Fluffy not to worry: catgut is not—and never has been—made from actual cat guts. Theoretically, you could use a cat’s intestines to make catgut string, but when compared to the string you get from cows and sheep, it’s not worth the trouble. A cow intestine can produce catgut string that is up to 160 feet long. Your cat’s intestine is small potatoes, compared to that. So why the hell is it called catgut when no cats were harmed in the production of this string? I’ll
get to that in a bit. First, let’s find out exactly what this string is.

These days, catgut comes mostly from the intestines of cows—though sometimes it's sheep, pigs, or even horses. But cow catgut is the biggest current industry. When cows are slaughtered for meat, the intestines are saved and processed. Here is a cross section of intestine:


Quora

The part that is used to make catgut comes mostly from the submucosa and the externa layers, both of which contain collagen, which is the protein we're looking for. Collagen is found throughout the bodies of mammals and some other vertebrates. Wherever structural strength and elasticity is required in soft tissue, you may find collagen there. Skin, for instance, which is strong and elastic. The intestines also need to be strong and elastic; when we eat a lot of food, for instance, we needthe intestines to stretch without bursting—and then to contract back to normal size after the food passes. This collagen is made up of strong stretchy fibers.

At slaughterhouses, the intestines are usually slit in half, thirds, or quarters, lengthwise. This would make different thicknesses, for different uses. So the above cross-section would make two, three, or four long lengths. These are then soaked in a series of solutions and caustic solvents, which dissolve away all the tissue except for the strong collagen fibers. Once all these fibers are clean and pure, it is then stretched, twisted, and allowed to dry under tension. What remains is catgut string which, pound for pound, is one of the strongest strings there is. In that regard, it’s stronger than a comparable weight of steel wire, in fact.

Various gauges (or diameters) of catgut are produced, depending on what its ultimate use will be. There are three main industries where catgut is used: The first is as surgical suture material. In western countries, it is being replaced by other materials that also are absorbed into the body, but the market is still strong in developing countries.

The second industry is sports, namely tennis and other racket sports. For sporting purposes, catgut—which was the original racket material—is made much thicker.

Since catgut biological material, it does degrade with time. But it offers the perfect combination of strength and "spring." As such, catgut has long been used to string bows for archery, at least as far back as ancient Egyptian times. And as we know, the Egyptians really loved their cats. So clearly they didn’t use their intestines for their bows. No, even then, catgut was made from cattle.

The third major use of catgut is for for stringed instruments. Catgut was the original violin string material. These days, there are many other types of strings, but you can still find catgut in many professional orchestras, on a variety of instruments, from classical guitars to those giant pedal harps that rest against your shoulder and make Heaven-like sounds.

Now that you know that no kitties were harmed in the making of catgut, you may be wondering why it was ever called catgut. Well, the gut part is obvious: it’s made out of guts, which itself is a very old word. But the cat part actually started out as kytte (pronounced “kit”). What is a kytte? This is a kytte:


Quora

That’s the front and back of a kytte—a medieval-era mini-violin. It was so mini, that it was stored in the pokett, which was derived from the Old French poque, or bag. Traveling minstrels could whip out their kyttes, play a lively tune or three, and then put their hardy instrument back into their pokett without worrying about the delicate frailty of a normal-sized violin. These instruments were the perfect mingling of a horsehair bow, rubbing against a cow gut catgut, in perfect concert with each other. Basically, catgut (kytte gut) is so named because it is gut that is used to string your kytte. Simple as that. It has nothing to do with felines whatsoever.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?

Elsa, Getty Images
Elsa, Getty Images

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team was founded in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions will host the Chicago Bears.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Washington Redskins on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?

In 2006, because six-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the New Orleans Saints will welcome the Atlanta Falcons.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

What’s That Thing That Hangs Off a Turkey’s Face?

iStock.com/JZHunt
iStock.com/JZHunt

That thing is called a snood. And it's there to let the other turkeys know that its owner is kind of a big deal.

When a male turkey—known as a tom—wants to mate, he faces two hurdles. One is his potential mates, the female turkeys (a.k.a. hens). In the realm of turkey mating, the hens wield the power of choice and the toms have to get their attention and win the opportunity to reproduce. Come mating season, a tom will strut around, gobble, puff out his chest, fan his tail, and drag his wings to attract the hens, who then pick which of the toms they’ll mate with.

The second problem for a tom looking for love is the other toms in the area. They’re all competing for the same limited number of hens. Sometimes a good mating display isn’t enough to win a mate, and toms will attack and fight each other to secure a hen. 

This is where the snood comes in. That goofy-looking piece of dangling flesh helps a tom both with choosy hens and with competition from rival males. Having a long snood almost always means that a hen will want to mate with him and that another tom will back down from a fight.

DUDES AND THEIR SNOODS

When two toms are trying to establish dominance, they’ll size each other up. Then they'll either fight, or one will flee.

In the late 1990s, Richard Buchholz, an animal behaviorist who focuses on turkeys, wanted to figure out which, if any, characteristics of a tom turkey could predict how they fare in dominance fights. That is, did bigger turkeys tend to win more scuffles? Did older ones? He also wanted to see if the turkeys used any of these predictive cues when sizing each other up. He looked at various characteristics of dominant toms that fight and win, and compared them to those of subordinate toms that lose fights or run from them. Of all the characteristics he looked at, only “relaxed snood length” seemed to be a reliable predictor of how a tom would do in bird-vs-bird combat. The dominant males, the ones who won fights and got a choice mate, had longer snoods.

With that in mind, Buchholz looked at how toms reacted to other toms with snoods of varying sizes. The birds tended to avoid confrontation with other males with longer snoods, and wouldn’t even feed near them. A big snood, this suggests, says to the other turkeys that this is a tom you don’t want to tangle with. Buchholz noted that snood length correlates with age, body mass, and testosterone, so, to competitors, the snood could be a good indicator of a tom’s aggressiveness, age/experience, size, and overall condition and fighting ability.

IN THE SNOOD FOR LOVE

Once the males have established who’s going to have a chance to mate, the final choice goes to the hen. While the mating display is the main draw for getting a hen to check him out, a tom’s snood helps him out again here.

Like it did for the other males, a tom’s snood signals a lot of information to a female assessing potential mates—it indicates how old and how big he is, and even says something about his health. In another study, Buchholz found that longer-snooded toms carried fewer parasites. If a hen wanted to choose a mate with good genes that might help her offspring grow large, live long, and avoid parasites, a tom’s snood is a good advertisement for his genes. In that study, hens showed a clear preference for toms with longer snoods. In another experiment years later, Buchholz found that healthy hens again showed a strong preference for long snoods and that hens with their own parasite problems were less picky about snood length and checked out more potential mates—perhaps, Buchholz thinks, because the hens recognized their own susceptibility to infection and were willing to invest more time searching for a tom with genes for parasite resistance that would complement their own—but still showed some preference for longer ones.

While a snood might look goofy to us, for a turkey, it’s integral to the mating game, signaling to other toms that they should get out of his way and letting hens know that he’s got what they’re looking for.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2013.

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