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The Many Uses of Cat Tongues

Cat tongues aren't just for eating and drinking water (and even how they drink is fascinating!). Here are the cool ways your cat uses his tongue.

Denise LeBeau  |  Sep 25th 2017


Every facet of Felis silvestris has evolved for efficiency. So, it makes sense that your cat’s tongue is a feat of engineering. And form follows function, from the top of his tail to the tip of his tongue. Felines use their tongues for everything from eating and drinking to grooming and bonding — and beyond. So what exactly do cat tongues do? Let’s review:

Cat tongues are key for grooming

A brown and white cat licking and grooming.

A cat grooming himself with his tongue. Photography by DoraZett/Thinkstock.

One of the obvious differences between a cat tongue and a human tongue is that it feels like sandpaper. The papillae are the backwards barbs found on every cat tongue. They’re helpful in grooming but not great for tasting ice cream. “The spike-like papillae on cats’ tongues, made from keratin, are what makes their tongues unique,” says Dr. Laura Andersen, D.V.M., shelter veterinarian at Nebraska Humane Society. “These structures help them when grooming themselves and also assist when drinking water and eating.”

According to The Washington Post, your cat’s tongue is a magical detangling hairbrush. Cats spend most of their days grooming themselves: the process removes parasites, helps spread their body oils and increases circulation. Research has unearthed that cat tongues move in multiple directions. “When the cat’s tongue hits a snag, it pulls on the hooks, which rotate to penetrate the snag even further,” states the doctoral candidate behind the study, Alexis Noel. Cats are their own full-service spa!

Cat tongues help cats drink water — in a very unique way

Ever wonder how cats actually drink? So did a group of engineering students and their findings are fascinating. While dogs use their tongues as ladles, cats do not. “Papillae act like little miniature cups that hold the water. It’s a very different mechanism than how dogs drink,” says Dr. Andersen. Cats use the tip of their tongue to bring the water toward their mouths. The motion causes the water to form a gravity-defying column that continues upwards, and the cat knows when to shut his mouth before the inertia stops. The speed and accuracy of your cat’s ability to drink rivals the responsiveness of any high-performance sports car.

While cats are expert drinkers, they’re usually not gulping down water to stay hydrated. Here are some potential issues that can cause cats to not drink: stagnant water, the size, shape and placement of the water bowl and even the level of the water.  Mother Nature Network reports that cats evolved to avoid standing water that could be contaminated. That’s why old water or a water bowl too close to the food bowl or litter box is a no-no. Cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett also states that cats need consistency, so a water bowl filled too high or too low could impede your cat’s natural desire to drink. Remember to keep the water levels even. And for those finicky felines who require only the freshest of water, there are fountain water bowls.

Cats use their tongues to lick their humans for a good reason

Cats lick their people because they accept them as part of their family. Or perhaps, as part of their property. Cats lick to establish territory by leaving their scent. But, they also do it as part of a social, bonding protocol — cat parents will often find their cats licking each other. This is a ritual passed down from the mama cat, and it helps keep the family clean as it brings them closer together.

Your cat’s tongue could cost you a trip to the vet

Cats use their tongues to explore their world. Dr. Elias Diamantopoulos of Center Moriches Veterinary Hospital warns people to keep stringy things away from your unattended cat. “Cats get into trouble when they start playing; they’ll often touch objects with their tongues. And then play triggers prey drive, and it can lead to a trip to the vet.” He’s seen cats with all types of items wrapped around their tongues and urges folks to be careful about what they leave around. There is a story involving a feminine hygiene product. Thankfully, that cat is fine now. It’s a lesson learned the hard way.

There’s another household item that could cause problems for your cat: cleaning products. Dr. Andersen says, “There are certain cleaning agents that should be avoided around cats, such as phenols (Lysol is an example). Along with quaternary ammonium agents (Roccal is an example).” These cleaning agents are toxic to cats and can cause tongue ulcers if a cat gets some of the cleaner in his mouth. Especially if the cleaner gets on the cat’s coat and then the cat licks it off.

Our cats’ tongues are ingenious tools designed for optimum performance. Whether they’re in the process of bonding, claiming territory, grooming themselves, eating, drinking or playing, cat’s tongues are marvels of engineering. Being a good cat parent includes providing the proper environment for your cat’s most curious and constantly-moving appendage.

Thumbnail: Photography by BLUEBEAT76/THINKSTOCK.

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