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.

How Does Alberta, Canada, Stay Rat-Free?

Francisco Martins/iStock via Getty Images
Francisco Martins/iStock via Getty Images

David Moe:

Alberta is the only province in Canada that does not have any rats and is, in fact, the largest inhabited area on the planet that is rat-free. Rats had to come from Eastern Canada, and it’s a long walk, so it was not until the 1950s that they finally reached Alberta. When they did, the Alberta government was ready for them: They instituted a very aggressive rat control program that killed every single rat that crossed the Alberta/Saskatchewan border.

The Agricultural Pests Act of Alberta, 1942 authorized the Minister of Agriculture to designate as a pest any animal that was likely to destroy crops or livestock; every person and municipality had to destroy the designated pests. Where their pest control was not adequate, the provincial government could carry it out and charge the costs to the landowner or municipality.

Rats were designated as pests in 1950. An amendment to the act in 1950 further required that every municipality appoint a pest control inspector. In 1951, conferences on rat control were held in eastern Alberta, and 2000 posters and 1500 pamphlets titled "Rat Control in Alberta" were distributed to grain elevators, railway stations, schools, post offices, and private citizens.

Between June 1952 and July 1953, [more than 140,000 pounds] of arsenic trioxide powder were used to treat 8000 buildings on 2700 farms in an area 12 to 31 miles wide and 186 miles long on the eastern border. Some residents were not informed that arsenic was being used and some, allegedly, were told that the tracking powder was only harmful to rodents. Consequently, some poisoning of livestock, poultry, and pets occurred. Fortunately, Warfarin—the first anticoagulant rodent poison—became available in 1953; Warfarin is much safer than arsenic, and in fact is prescribed to some heart patients as a blood thinner.

The number of rat infestations in the border area increased rapidly from one in 1950 to 573 in 1955. However, after 1959, the numbers of infestations dropped dramatically.

The provincial share of rat control expenses increased to 100 percent in 1975. All premises within the control zone from Montana to Cold Lake are now inspected at least annually. Rat infestations are eliminated by bait, gas, or traps. Buildings are occasionally moved or torn down, and in some cases, rats are dug out with a backhoe or bulldozer. In the early days they also used shotguns, incendiaries, and high explosives to control rats. It was something of a war zone.

Hundreds of suspected infestations are reported each year, but most sightings turn out to be muskrats, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, bushy-tailed wood rats, or mice. However, all suspected infestations are investigated.

A few white rats have been brought in by pet stores, biology teachers, and well-meaning individuals who did not know it was unlawful to have rats in Alberta, even white lab rats or pet rats. White rats can only be kept by zoos, universities, colleges, and recognized research institutions in Alberta. Private citizens may not keep white rats, hooded rats, or any of the strains of domesticated Norway rats. Possession of a pet rat can lead to a fine of up to $5000.

In 2004 someone released 38 rats in Calgary. By the time the rat control officers arrived, most of them were dead. The local residents had formed a posse and killed them with brooms, 2x4s, and shovels. If the authorities had caught the culprit, he could have faced a $190,000 fine (38 x $5000)—assuming his neighbors didn’t get to him with brooms, 2x4s, and shovels first. Albertans don’t want rats.

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

Why Do Students Get Summers Off?

Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images
Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images

It’s commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the 19th century so that they’d have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is, it isn’t true. Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky—and their sweaty, rich parents.

Before the Civil War, farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long—summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

But as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.

Legislators, in one of those if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em moments, started arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labor unions and the eight-hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. From there, they argued that students shouldn’t go to school year-round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 schooldays from the most sweltering part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern so they wouldn’t fall behind. Business folks obviously saw an opportunity here. The summer vacation biz soon ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.

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