Cats are fascinating creatures, and their tongues are one of their most efficient features. They use it in a particular way for cleaning, drinking, and feeding themselves, but is there something special about their tongues?
Cat tongues are rough because of the backward spines called papillae on them. This is why their tongues feel like sandpaper being dragged through our skin. Their tongues are used for grooming their fur and for scraping meat or bones.
Grooming is the most practiced activity by a cat. The papillae on its tongue are the perfect hairbrush.
Cats are solitary creatures, and their primary weapon of survival is their tongues. Thanks to the particular papillae on its tongues, cats can scrape their fur clean and digest most of the debris. Whatever cats can’t digest turns into hairballs that they expelled back out.
The papillae on your cat’s tongue are also great tools for stripping the meat off bones. Cats can’t bite through a bone as a dog can, so they use their tongue to extract as much food as possible.
A cat’s tongue is also the primary mechanism that allows them to consume water. Cats place their tongue in water and lift it, allowing the papillae to pull enough water to the mouth.
The roughness in a cat’s tongue helps them with feeding and self-cleaning, which are vital for their survival.
Why Do Cats Constantly Groom Themselves?
Every behavior a cat adopts has been copied from the early stages of its life. Kittens learn to meow, move and lick while watching their mom do it to them and to herself. These tiny furballs learn to groom themselves by the time they no longer need their mom’s milk.
Grooming is an activity that goes beyond beauty and aesthetics. Cats groom themselves to keep healthy skin thanks to the stimulation of oil production at the base of their hairs. Constant licking helps spread this oil that lubricates the fur and helps prevent parasites.
How well and often your cat grooms is also a measurement of its health. Cats that are not grooming enough may look dirty and mistreated. This can also be a sign of illness. When a cat grooms too much, to the point of exposing its skin, it is a sign of pain and anxiety.
Grooming is a way for cats to control their temperature. Unlike humans, cats can’t sweat to cool down, so they depend on the saliva evaporating in their fur and skin. A cat whose tongue is constantly out of his mouth may be overheated and should see a veterinarian.
Cats groom in many different ways, but the most common is when they start by licking their mouth, face, and whiskers. Then, they lick their shoulders and forelegs, wash their bodies and genitals, and end up grooming their entire tail.
Cats use their back claws to scratch their ears and neck because it is a spot in their bodies they cannot reach with their tongue. As a result, they might find a partner with whom to groom.
Grooming with other cats is a sign of friendship, caring, and love. It involves more than hygiene or health.
Why Do Cats Lick Us?
When a cat licks you, it is not trying to keep you clean—licking you is its most extraordinary form of appreciation.
Since kittens are constantly licked by their mom, they learn that licking is a sign of love. A domestic cat knows that its owner is like its mom and therefore feels the need to lick them.
As such, even if it feels rough and mildly scratchy when your cat licks you, remember it is their way of saying “I love you.”
How Exactly Does A Cat’s Tongue Work?
This same question led to a scientific paper published in 2018 by a bioengineer and a PhD. student. They explored the characteristics of the cat’s tongue and brought to light new information about our feline friends.
Alexis Noel, the student, was mesmerized by how her cat’s tongue kept getting trapped in microfiber. She wanted to understand how papillae work and, in collaboration with bioengineer David Hu, found little information on the mechanics of cat grooming.
Noel and Hu found that in 1982, papillae were described as hollow cones. The study conducted by Noel and Hu, with newer technology, at Georgia Tech showed that papillae spines curve towards the throat of the cat.
This paper was the one that explained in detail how cats can pull up water with just their tongue. Something that wouldn’t be possible is if the papillae were actually “hollow cones.”
The paper also shows that the spines on a cat’s tongue rotate while the cat licks its fur. Meaning the papillae are not fixed towards the throat of the cat.
The fact that the papillae can rotate makes it easier for a cat to clean and reach the deepest part of its fur.
“A cat tongue works like a very smart comb,” declares David Hu, who found himself especially curious about this discovery. Hu tells the story about spending a lot of time searching for a comb that could help with his son’s lice problem to no avail.
This discovery led to the Tongue-Inspired Grooming brush prototype. The TIGR is a brush that could have a similar function to that of a cat’s tongue in our everyday lives. Cat’s tongues became an influence in engineering.
Do Dogs Have Rough Tongues?
The answer is no. Dogs have smoother tongues than cats. They are almost identical to ours. Dogs use their tongues to cool off because they do not possess the ability to sweat, just like cats. However, it is not efficient for cleaning. They still need to be brushed to avoid tangles.
What Other Animals Have Rough Tongues?
Every mammal has papillae, including humans. Felines’ papillae are just more hardened and prominent. Aside from your domestic cat, any wild cats, tigers, and lions have spine-shaped papillae—all curved toward the throat.
We can say that a cat’s tongue is an evolutionary development for his survival. Typically, larger cats have a more prominent tongue and papillae. So, if you feel mild discomfort when being licked by your cat, avoid being licked by a tiger. Giant anteaters and cows have rough tongues just like cats.
What Happens If A Tiger Or A Lion Licks Me?
Tigers, lions and bobcats all have rough tongues with spine-shaped papillae, but on a much larger scale. These animals share the exact needs of a domestic cat but with a bigger body, fur, and thicker skin. Their tongues match their requirements.
The tongue of a tiger or lion could tear the skin of a human in just a couple of licks. It may cause severe harm and can lead to an attack by these animals. In addition to this, because of the roughness of it, it can be quite painful to endure.
Tigers and lions could lick a human to death with their tongues if they wanted to. But, a person would have already died if they were licking the flesh out of their body.
Cats would not have survived in a dirty world without their tongues. Being solitary creatures, their tongues are one of their main assets for survival.
Cat’s tongues help them keep themselves clean, cool, hydrated, and well-fed. It is a fascinating element of a cat’s anatomy.
If you want to learn more, the primary and most recent scientific study on cat’s tongues is “The tongue as gripper” by Alexis Noel and David Hu.
Shawn Manaher is a serial entrepreneur but when he isn’t working, he loves dogs. He’s owned different pets over the years, and always gives a part of his heart to each pet.