By Kate Hughes
For cat owners, there are few joys like being groomed by your kitty. It means you’ve earned her trust, that you’ve been accepted into her pride. However, on a more physical level, it also feels like your cat is scraping wet, coarse sandpaper across your skin—not quite as pleasant as the emotional payoff.
Cats’ tongues are a fascinating part of their anatomy. They’re multipurpose, not simply serving as a means to taste food, but also assisting cats in eating, drinking, and grooming. And, if cat owners take a closer look at their cats’ tongues, they’d see right away what makes this muscular organ so useful.
Cats’ tongues are covered with tiny barbs, called papillae. While these barbs vary in length—with the ones in the center of the tongue longer than the ones along the edges—they are all covered in a very strong keratin sheath, explains Dr. Mark Freeman, assistant professor of community practice at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia. The keratin is translucent, but also very firm, giving these barbs a lot of strength. “And, if you look closely at these barbs, you’ll also notice that they’re oriented toward the back of the mouth,” he adds.
The orientation of the papillae on a cat’s tongue is a double-edged sword. “Cats’ tongues are optimized for hunting,” Freeman describes. “When they catch prey, the papillae literally help cats strip flesh from bones, extracting the maximum amount of nutrition from their catch, and direct it to the back of the mouth.” But these barbs can also trap items that cats shouldn’t be eating. “If a cat is playing with something like string or a rubber band and puts it in her mouth, those papillae direct it right to the back of the throat,” Freeman says. “This can lead to issues like getting a piece of string wrapped around the tongue or even stuck in the throat.”
Papillae have other uses beyond eating—they’re also used extensively for grooming. “Papillae help cats pick dirt and debris out of their fur while straightening and neatening everything out,” says Dr. Ryane E. Englar, assistant professor and clinical education coordinator at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. “It’s a very effective method of keeping clean, which is good because cats are very fastidious about their personal hygiene and grooming.”
The roughness of cats’ tongues is extremely important for kittens, especially when they’re young, Englar notes. “When kittens are born, they’re blind and deaf, so touch is a very important sense. The roughness of their mothers’ tongues and the intimacy of the grooming process helps them bond with their mom before they can even see her.” Englar adds that very young kittens need to be stimulated to urinate and defecate, and the papillae on the mother’s tongue are of great assistance on that front. “It’s not a light touch. It’s very vigorous. This is so important because without this stimulation, the kittens won’t evacuate.”
Cats also use their tongues for drinking. While it may look like cats are lapping water into their mouths like dogs, the actuality is much cooler. “Cats don’t ever put their mouths in water,” Freeman says. “Instead, they put their tongue in the water and lift it up very quickly. The papillae on their tongues pull water up from the surface, creating a column that the cat then closes his mouth around. He’ll do that three or four times until he has a good amount of water in his mouth and then he’ll swallow.” Freeman adds that some researchers have made slow motion videos of this process that can be found online for curious cat owners.
While humans may not strip flesh off bones or groom themselves with their tongues, cats and humans both do use their tongues to taste. There’s some debate as to whether cats are able to taste the same five flavors that humans can (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami), but Englar and Freeman agree that cats have their own preferences, just like people. “Anecdotally, you hear all kinds of stories about cats that like different kinds of food and different flavors. But, unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of formal studies on this subject,” Englar says. “This may be because cats are not the most cooperative subjects.”