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They look cute, but cat tongues sure don't feel cute. Why are cats' tongues rough and abrasive? What makes them so unique? A cat's tongue is a vital part of a cat's anatomy and a window to their health and wellness.
Cat Tongues: Form and Function
The most distinctive physical feature of a cat tongue is the presence of hundreds of filiform papillae: the tiny, white keratin protein spines that give the tongue its sandpaper-like texture. That's why cat tongues are so rough. Your cat's tongue is covered in those sharp, backward-facing hooks. This feature gives them a hook-like capability to latch onto whatever they're licking, such as a blanket or their pet parent's skin.
Eating and Drinking
All cats, from the smallest domestic kitten to the largest lion in the savanna, have spiny filiform papillae on their tongues. These spiky papillae assist cats in the wild by wiping clean the bones of their prey and moving the food to the back of their mouths. Even if your cat is served kibble in a fancy dish in your kitchen instead of hunting down dinner in the outdoors, their barbed tongues perform a vital function in the feeding process.
In addition to the presence of so many spiky papillae, the shape of cat tongues are unique compared to other animals, including humans. "The tip of the tongue is curled backward to create a hollow shape that acts like the bowl of a spoon," explains Cats International. Then, a cat "darts" their tongue across the water to create a column of water that the cat catches on their tongue. It's a pretty remarkable and efficient process that uses surface tension. Observe your own cat, and you'll see how they curl up the tip of their tongue to collect water and, once a certain amount of water accumulates (every four or five laps, says Cats International), your kitty will swallow and repeat.
Cats have about 473 taste buds compared to humans, who have 9,000, and dogs, who have around 1,700. Cats International notes that cats experience the four basic tastes — sweet, salty, bitter and sour— but their sense of sweet is much, much lower than humans or dogs. Cats are obligate carnivores hard-wired to seek out meaty smells; therefore "sweet" doesn't register as high on their taste receptors. Some cats may seem to enjoy sweet foods, says Cat Health, but they're probably enjoying the fat in the food rather than the sugar. They also have an aversion to bitter tastes, which is why bitter anti-chew sprays can be effective for many cats.
Cat tongues are an integral part of a cat's meticulous grooming routine. Those multitasking hooks of papillae spikes work like a built-in comb. With each lick of the tongue, those spikes lift up dust, loose hair, dry skin and other debris. Cats also groom to regulate their body temperature and stimulate circulation. This grooming routine also evenly distributes natural oils through your cat's coat, keeping them looking silky and smooth.
Recently, researchers discovered just how important papillae are to the grooming process. In an article published by the National Academy of Sciences, "Cats Use Hollow Papillae to Wick Saliva into Fur," researchers Alexic C. Noel and David L. Hu explain how the papillae are hollow and shaped like scoops. The papillae "scoops" absorb saliva and distributes it on the fur closest to the skin, allowing a cat to clean hard-to-reach fur and skin and provide more effective cool-down methods.
Health and Wellness
Cat tongues also provide insight into your furry friend's health status. A normal cat tongue is pink and dry with no excess saliva. Pay attention to any changes in your cat's tongue, such as the following:
- White patches
- Cuts or sores
These abnormalities can indicate underlying health issues, which can lead to bigger issues down the road. Drooling, in particular, is not a common behavior for cats and could be a sign of an underlying illness. If you notice any unusual changes to your cat's tongue, including if it hangs out excessively or is accompanied by drooling, contact your vet right away.
Cat Tongue Cuteness
If your cat's tongue is hanging out, it doesn't necessarily mean that there's a problem. Most often, writes Arnold Plotnick, DVM, for Catnip magazine at Tuft University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, your cat's tongue is hanging out for harmless reasons and is just one of a cat's many "quirks." Sometimes, cats forget to pull their tongue back into their mouth after grooming, or they are licking their face after dinner or yawning widely right before nap time. These are all great opportunities for silly cat photos, which can be very therapeutic. Research conducted at Indiana University revealed the "emotional benefits" of watching cat videos, and that enjoyment carries over into looking at cute kitty pictures.
Who hasn't melted over an adorable photo of a cat sticking its tongue out? This so-called "power of cute," as the BBC calls it, is magnified when cats stick out their tiny tongues. The next time you observe your kitty smoothing down their fur or drinking from their water bowl, grab your camera and start snapping away!
Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is an award-winning writer, educator, and long-time cat mom. She's a professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA) and writes for industry-leading companies and academic institutions. Find and follow Christine on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien