Simultaneously rough and tender, cat tongues are the stuff of poetry — and butt-licking, hairball-building horror. They are also anatomically strange and fascinating, with specialized features designed specifically to help your cat groom her fur and consume her prey. Here are five awesome facts about your cat’s busiest muscle.
1. The tongue is a hotbed of papillae
When your cat licks you, it feels like she’s running a piece of cute, pink sandpaper across your skin. The rough sensation is caused by the papillae on her tongue, which are basically tiny, backward-facing barbs made of keratin, the same stuff that’s found in human fingernails.
The papillae are intended to aid in grooming and ripping the flesh from the bones of prey, but they are also great for freaking out humans. Seriously, let your cat lick your eyelid sometime. You will feel it in your bellybutton and the back of your throat.
2. Cats overgroom when they are stressed
When I’m nervous, I pick at my fingernails. One time in high school, while hanging out with a boy I had a huge crush on, I actually made myself bleed.
Cats can engage in similarly compulsive behavior. Grooming releases endorphins, so when cats get stressed or anxious, they lick themselves — and sometimes they overdo it. Called psychogenic alopecia, overgrooming is typically indicated by bald spots — or even sores, as some cats turn to self-mutilation.
Cats frequently indulge in these lickfests in private, so you might not notice until your cat’s belly turns up hairless one day. In this case, you’ll need a vet to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other potential issues — and you’ll also want to discuss ways to reduce your cat’s stress.
3. Cats groom for survival
After hunting, a cat will groom himself thoroughly to erase all evidence of his recent foray into brutal murder. Cats are small enough to be both predator and prey. Therefore, they do not want to leave traces of their whereabouts that other predators can trace.
Basically, if your cat were the bad guy in Law & Order, Stabler and Benson would have a damn hard time catching him.
4. Cats can’t taste sweets
Cats have fewer taste buds than humans, and they generally cannot taste sweets. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they eat only meat. Their taste buds might not have evolved to detect sweet flavors.
Sad news: As far as science knows, cats might be the only mammals incapable of enjoying ice cream. Good news: Dental disease is one of the primary health concerns in many adult cats, meaning their teeth are bad enough without sugar.
This does not, however, explain my cat Bubba Lee Kinsey’s distinct enjoyment of Twizzlers and granola bars. (Does your cat enjoy the sweet stuff? If so, tell us about it in the comments!)
5. When a cat drinks water, magic happens
Science recently discovered that when cats drink, they pretty much defy gravity. The tongue barely brushes the surface of a liquid before darting quickly back up, forming a column of water between the moving tongue and the surface of the liquid. Then the cat’s jaws snap closed around this column of water, and the cat swallows it. Boom — a refreshing drink, feline-style.
Cats lap at a rate of four times per second — too quickly for the human eye to see. The majesty of feline drinking habits was only discovered after a whole team of researchers took a series of high-speed photographs. It’s like magic that happens in your home every day.
Photos of Patterson by Amy Brady and Alan Scherstuhl.
About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.
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