Have you ever wondered why your cat’s tongue feels like sandpaper? It can be a strange surprise to get licked by a cat – a cat’s tongue is not like the soft tongue of a dog, but rather it is quite rough and maybe even a little ouchy if you are caught off guard. Why are cats’ tongues so different?
The begin with, a feline tongue is covered in tiny, backward-facing spines called papillae. The hook-like papillae are made of keratin, just like the cat’s claws or our own fingernails.
The barbs on a cat’s tongue serve many purposes. In the wild, cats hunt for their food, and their rough tongues help to strip the meat from the bones of their kills. The papillae are also very important for a cat’s survival – after eating, a cat will groom themselves thoroughly to remove the scent of their meal, so that neither their prey nor their predators will smell it on them.
The roughness of a cat’s tongue is a vital aspect of their normal health and grooming routine, as well. The tiny spines act as a brush, able to go in between tangled cat hairs on a minute level and detangle them, remove debris or even parasites, and distribute healthy oils throughout the skin and coat that provide a small amount of waterproofing. This natural coat maintenance is one reason why some vets advise against routinely bathing your cat, though it’s still a good idea to brush your furry friend regularly to help keep hairballs and matting to a minimum.
The tongue of a feline is the way it is because cats are obligate carnivores, which leads to another fascinating fact: the wide predator’s mouth of a cat makes it impossible for them to take a mouthful of water the same way that we do without the water dribbling out the sides. This is why cats drink water in such a remarkable way – they dip the tips of their tongues into the water so rapidly that it creates a column of fluid. The cat essentially bites off this column to get small swallows of water. This all happens so fast – at a rate of four times per second, in fact – that it’s pretty near to impossible to see without a slow motion camera.
It is interesting to note that even though there is so much happening with a cat’s tongue, they actually have far fewer taste buds than we do. In fact, they are not really able to appreciate sweets the way we are. This, in addition to the fact that many cats are lactose intolerant, leads to the recommendation that we minimize our impulse to share our ice cream with them. Yes, it’s out of love, but it may not be great for our cats.
These cool facts about your cat’s tongue are just one small aspect of what makes our cats so fun to learn about. They may be cuddly, purring balls of fur who snuggle in our laps, but they are also wild and intriguing felines within.