Last updated: February 12, 2017
Have you ever been groomed by a cat? If you’re used to the sloppy feel of a dog’s tongue that rough little sandpaper tongue will come as quite a surprise! Isn’t it just the best feeling in the world? If you are owned by a cat this is one of the many pleasures you enjoy on a daily basis, as well as cheek rubbing, head butts and endless purring, little meows, kneading and slow blinking. Why do cats have rough tongues – they all have them – from the tiniest of kittens to the most titanic of tigers! So what does he use all that sandpaper for? Read on – and be amazed!
What Makes It So Rough?
A cat’s tongue has thousands of little backward – pointing barbs on it – is made of keratin, the same thing that makes up our finger and toenails – and his claws! They are called filiform papillae and they perform a few important functions in their lives – wish I had a tongue like that! But if he didn’t have them he wouldn’t be here today – because evolution has given him this Swiss-Army knife like multipurpose tool that performs all sorts of functions in his life. Let’s explore a few!
In the wild, cats eat all sorts of feathery, furry, scaly things and they need heavyweight equipment to deal with them. So Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom equipped him with them. Teeth, claws – and tongue! Cats’ tongues are used to rasp the meat off the bones of its prey, so that the teeth can do the rest! Because of the backward-facing barbs, it’s also a great tool for helping to hold the prey in the cat’s mouth.
Grooming For Anything!
Cats spend an awful lot of time – as much as 30 – 40% of their day – grooming themselves, and while they do this they get rid of all the dirt and detritus they collect during the stressful business of being a cat! Because he grooms so often with such a rough tongue, hairballs may form which the cat will excrete later – from either end! Remember, though, that because this tongue is the feline equivalent of sticky tape, you have to be careful with things like string, yarn, thread and wire. These could be potentially very harmful, because they get stuck on his tongue and he can’t easily spit them out. You can help your cat out by brushing him daily – trust me – he’ll LOVE it! (And probably, so will you!)This will get rid of a lot of surplus fur!
To Stay Alive!
In the wild, cats are not only a threat to smaller animals, but are also preyed upon by bigger ones, so when the kill and eat their prey, they have to leave no traces of themselves behind. How do they do this? With – you guessed it – their tongues! The cat needs to groom himself thoroughly so that little or no trace of his scent is left behind.
To Cool Down
Cats have very few sweat glands except on their paws, and this is really too small a surface area to do the job on its own, so they groom to keep cool through the evaporation of saliva on their bodies. However, if the temperature is above 90f and cats really are too hot they will pant and cool down through evaporation from their tongues. Maybe that’s why you see so many lions doing it!
Grooming as Stress Relief
If your cat is anxious he may groom to relieve stress, and can even lick the same bit of himself over and over again so thoroughly that he causes bald patches. This kind of grooming releases endorphins and helps the cat soothe itself, but if it’s really harmful and he’s licking, biting, chewing, causing hair loss and ulcerations, it may be time to see the vet, just in case there’s an underlying health problem. If it gets to this stage any wounds incurred may become infected. He may even pass the stress on to you if you’re not careful!
Allogrooming is when two animals of the same species groom each other. As well as cleaning, it has a social function, perhaps fulfilling a mother to kitten relationship.The cats usually groom each other around the head and neck area, which may partly explain why they like us to touch and stroke them there. Conversely, it may be a process of redirected aggression, with a higher-ranking cat grooming the more submissive one by standing higher up and looking down on it. The cat being groomed is usually lying down and in thirty-five percent of cases it results in antagonistic behavior.
Tongues for Tasting
There is one extremely distressing thing about being a cat. They can’t taste sweet things! Gasp! No chocolate! No ice cream! No sugar! In fact, cats’ tongues have fewer taste receptors than we have, so they like to experience their food in different ways. For cats, the texture of the food is just as important as the taste. As you know, cats are fussy felines and they will reject food just because they don’t like the feel of it. Really! We who are owned by cats know that their favorite food one day can be the one that they turn their noses up at the next. They even spit it out if it isn’t the right shape or size. Can you believe it?
Cats have no true cheeks, so they don’t have the power of suction. So cats have developed an ingenious but very strange method of using their tongues for drinking. If I didn’t have a spoon and wanted to use my tongue instead, I’d make it into a little cup and flick it down my throat the way a dog does. But that’s too ordinary for a cat! Cat’s tongues move at four times a second, and bend DOWNWARDS towards the surface of the water, forcing a jet of water very fast towards the top of the cat’s mouth. It is suspended in mid-air for a millisecond before the cat collects the water by closing his mouth just before the water falls down again. Sounds incredibly complicated – but they seem to manage to drink!
Cats’ tongues are really fabulous things. They are used for so many different purposes that they’d really be lost without them. I think cats are a masterpiece of evolutionary perfection, and their tongues are amazing bits of biological engineering. Everything about a cat serves a purpose – and as well as being efficient little killers they are so cute that you just gotta love them!